The Struggle of Writing Vows

“Two years ago when your father offered me your hand in marriage to solidify the alliance between our clans I thought that I could be content with. At first glance you were a right fit lass and when you demanded I take you to Saragossa with me I was impressed with your spirit. You took the journey in stride, the trials and tribulations of the city, my admittedly limited capacity for coping with stress—all of that you took in stride. You kept our home warm and inviting, food ready for me even when I was returning home from the taverns at ungodly hours in the morning. You’ve been a rock since we came to this cursed valley, and even then I couldn’t say to myself that I loved you. I was a bloody idiot.

As I held you in those woods and watched the light fade from your eyes I knew at that moment a world without you waiting for me when I got home was not a world I could not accept. As I chased the people that had done this to you through the woods I was hardly concerned with my sword…I just wanted to hurt them for what they did to you. That was the moment I realized that there was nothing in the world that meant more to me than you. Every kind word, small gesture of affection, every moment spent with you drove me forwards and I truly believe brought me out of that alive.

Fiona MacLaren I love you with all of my heart and soul, and until I draw my last breath I will continue to work to be a man worthy of your love. I will live my life as the sword and shield that protects you from all the bad things in the world and nothing and no one will keep us apart.”

With a heavy sigh Niall crumpled the parchment he was writing on and tossed it to the side. This was the seventh time he’d attempted to scribe his weeding vows to Fiona, and the seventh time he’d found himself increasingly disappointed at the lack of words he could muster to describe his feelings. He looked over at the bed they shared and smiled softly watching the heavy wool blankets rise and fall as she slept. As much as he wanted to send her to Porto Fino, there was a great comfort in having her here. Seeing that she was alive and well, reminding him that he didn’t lose her. Occasionally he’d find himself in a moment of panic unable to calm down until he saw her or heard her.

The last few days he’d been so focused on tending to her recovery that he’d still been putting off the emotional labor of working through his own truama. As far as Niall was concerned that could come later, keeping Fiona safe and seeing them and the rest of his circle of friends through this crisis was top priority. Though he could hear Saorise and Arineh chastising him now about taking care of himself, in fact he was overdue for one of those conversations sometime soon.

As he set his writing supplies away Niall found himself thinking to the conversation he had with Sinnoch last forum. At the time when he was asked if he was happy Niall couldn’t respond. He didn’t know what happiness was, all he knew was his duty. But for now as he crawled beside the woman he’d given up his moorsword to protect he could imagine that one day he could very well answer yes to that question—and that was all he could ask for at the moment.

Tales of Dark Folkwise

Eloi had traveled through most of the lands occupied by man, and every place he had been had their own local folkwise. Most of these ventured into dark territory, often literally.There was always that one hill that people didn’t go up after dark. There was always some place that was colder than the lands around it. There was always something that lived in the woods that there were customs on how to avoid. These were tales on the dangers that existed and how to avoid or at least mitigate them.

In Capacionne, there was no exception. Travellers hurried past crossroads at night and knew that if you were addressed by somebody familiar that called you to wait in the middle, it was not them. The traveller would apologise and continue forward and wait till what was considered a safe distance away to see if they were still being addressed. Above all, when experiencing something unknown or possibly supernatural, it was important to be polite and pretend nothing was out of the normal. Then, never to speak of it again to anybody except perhaps you priest. To talk about such things publically was ….unwise. Similarly, farmers, gardners, and even woodsmen would address the plants they were to cut or disturb, either to apologize or thank them. A lack of respect never gained any friends and a kind or flattering word might put an enemy off just long enough to escape.

Rogalia was a nation that still had respect for the night. The vampire lords were gone, but many of their servants still exist. Never go into the woods at night to investigate the strange lights. If you live away from a town or village, you don’t look out of the windows into the dark. Just don’t. Even if there are strange noises, you might think it is animals, but it’s not. If you have to investigate, go to the door and open it boldly with a lantern and weapon in hand. Whatever it is seems not too keen on being confronted. They flee, …usually. People know that there are packs of wolves that will hunt lone travelers which not only are able to speak but will know the traveller’s name. Do not run or they will sense weakness and tear you apart. Do not listen, because their words are more dangerous than their claws. Sometimes eyes will peer out of the woods. Not the eyes of an animal reflecting a lantern’s light, but those that glow like hot coals of a dying fire. It is best that you make it to a spot with light and other people, as if you keep watching for them, they will be moving closer to you when you are not looking at them.

Dunland is no different. As it gets late in the pubs, and the Rogalians are gone and it is nothing but locals, you can hear things only spoken in whispers. There’s a road through the woods that you do not take, even in the day. There is that cold feeling you get in that one place. There is a deep understanding that something exists out in the moors that is older than man, that doesn’t care about us particularly, but is more than willing to kick us in the slats as let us pass unmolested. Those that are more drunk will tell of things that stand like a man but run on all fours, at least till they figure they have spoken too much and will refuse to talk any more. Every pub has their own methods of avoiding trouble if one must venture into the moors at night. Most involve some form of tribute or distractions such as beer poured into a hole dug in the ground or an offering of small cakes left on a rock, but these are all closely guarded secrets. Many Rennets disappear in Dunland and not as many are due to the Dunns as the Rogalians think.

The Shariqyn have their own stable of tales of monsters that inhabit the desert and the night. Witches with tangled hair that will steal children that wander away from a caravan or perhaps cause a man to wander away from his camp and deeper into the desert. Ghosts that demand hospitality. Birds that will mimic the whistling of a nightguard, and even other sounds including speech. Caves filled with treasure that will curse anyone that takes some. So many there could be books filled with such tales. Most of these seem like the standard assortment of cautionary and morality tales told to children. Then you see the fear of a mother who can’t find their child at night, or how the old men will grow quiet and alert when they hear and owl far from any trees.

Gotha, the seat of the Throne, has their own tales and customs. The woods are dark and ancient and filled with things that are also dark and ancient. When traveling through deep woods, make sure to keep track of everybody in the group and know them all by face. It’s a game to them and they like to insert themselves into the group and just observe before they strike. It’s said that the dower demeanor of the Gothic is because there are Things that laughter summons best not met. Even in Holy Lethia, there are cellar doors that are always locked from sundown to sunrise, rooms that shouldn’t be entered, and alleys to be avoided. These are always done on the orders of a priest, or so people say.

The Hestrali have their own collection of wisdom that seems to deal mostly with lovers or eating and drinking. If you have been pursuing a person who has rebuffed your advances, yet you meet them alone at night by the sea wanting to swim, just don’t. It’s not them. When serving meals at a table, never have an empty seat. Invite somebody, put something in it, or just move the chair. An empty seat is an invitation. So is a full glass nobody has claimed.

The Njords know that no matter which god you worship, you do not bother the large stone in the middle of the field or that old tree. If you do, bad things will happen as the fea and elves still have their places of power. There is always some idiot that will decide to chop down THAT tree, and you will see the bravest warrior decide they should not be a part of what is going on. Older njords will just say “Those poor fuckers. They’re doomed.” In some of the farming villages built recently, an important person will have some rock that was cleared away dug back up from the rubbish pile and put back in place. The most impossible things have been happening to sabotage the village production, and only replacing the rock makes things return to normal.

Folkwise

Eloi had traveled through most of the lands occupied by man, and every place he had been had their own local folkwise. Most of these ventured into dark territory, often literally.There was always that one hill that people didn’t go up after dark. There was always some place that was colder than the lands around it. There was always something that lived in the woods that there were customs on how to avoid. These were tales on the dangers that existed and how to avoid or at least mitigate them.

In Capacionne, there was no exception. Travellers hurried past crossroads at night and knew that if you were addressed by somebody familiar that called you to wait in the middle, it was not them. The traveller would apologise and continue forward and wait till what was considered a safe distance away to see if they were still being addressed. Above all, when experiencing something unknown or possibly supernatural, it was important to be polite and pretend nothing was out of the normal. Then, never to speak of it again to anybody except perhaps you priest. To talk about such things publically was ….unwise. Similarly, farmers, gardners, and even woodsmen would address the plants they were to cut or disturb, either to apologize or thank them. A lack of respect never gained any friends and a kind or flattering word might put an enemy off just long enough to escape.

Rogalia was a nation that still had respect for the night. The vampire lords were gone, but many of their servants still exist. Never go into the woods at night to investigate the strange lights. If you live away from a town or village, you don’t look out of the windows into the dark. Just don’t. Even if there are strange noises, you might think it is animals, but it’s not. If you have to investigate, go to the door and open it boldly with a lantern and weapon in hand. Whatever it is seems not too keen on being confronted. They flee, …usually. People know that there are packs of wolves that will hunt lone travelers which not only are able to speak but will know the traveller’s name. Do not run or they will sense weakness and tear you apart. Do not listen, because their words are more dangerous than their claws. Sometimes eyes will peer out of the woods. Not the eyes of an animal reflecting a lantern’s light, but those that glow like hot coals of a dying fire. It is best that you make it to a spot with light and other people, as if you keep watching for them, they will be moving closer to you when you are not looking at them.

Dunland is no different. As it gets late in the pubs, and the Rogalians are gone and it is nothing but locals, you can hear things only spoken in whispers. There’s a road through the woods that you do not take, even in the day. There is that cold feeling you get in that one place. There is a deep understanding that something exists out in the moors that is older than man, that doesn’t care about us particularly, but is more than willing to kick us in the slats as let us pass unmolested. Those that are more drunk will tell of things that stand like a man but run on all fours, at least till they figure they have spoken too much and will refuse to talk any more. Every pub has their own methods of avoiding trouble if one must venture into the moors at night. Most involve some form of tribute or distractions such as beer poured into a hole dug in the ground or an offering of small cakes left on a rock, but these are all closely guarded secrets. Many Rennets disappear in Dunland and not as many are due to the Dunns as the Rogalians think.

The Shariqyn have their own stable of tales of monsters that inhabit the desert and the night. Witches with tangled hair that will steal children that wander away from a caravan or perhaps cause a man to wander away from his camp and deeper into the desert. Ghosts that demand hospitality. Birds that will mimic the whistling of a nightguard, and even other sounds including speech. Caves filled with treasure that will curse anyone that takes some. So many there could be books filled with such tales. Most of these seem like the standard assortment of cautionary and morality tales told to children. Then you see the fear of a mother who can’t find their child at night, or how the old men will grow quiet and alert when they hear and owl far from any trees.

Gotha, the seat of the Throne, has their own tales and customs. The woods are dark and ancient and filled with things that are also dark and ancient. When traveling through deep woods, make sure to keep track of everybody in the group and know them all by face. It’s a game to them and they like to insert themselves into the group and just observe before they strike. It’s said that the dower demeanor of the Gothic is because there are Things that laughter summons best not met. Even in Holy Lethia, there are cellar doors that are always locked from sundown to sunrise, rooms that shouldn’t be entered, and alleys to be avoided. These are always done on the orders of a priest, or so people say.

The Hestrali have their own collection of wisdom that seems to deal mostly with lovers or eating and drinking. If you have been pursuing a person who has rebuffed your advances, yet you meet them alone at night by the sea wanting to swim, just don’t. It’s not them. When serving meals at a table, never have an empty seat. Invite somebody, put something in it, or just move the chair. An empty seat is an invitation. So is a full glass nobody has claimed.

The Njords know that no matter which god you worship, you do not bother the large stone in the middle of the field or that old tree. If you do, bad things will happen as the fea and elves still have their places of power. There is always some idiot that will decide to chop down THAT tree, and you will see the bravest warrior decide they should not be a part of what is going on. Older njords will just say “Those poor fuckers. They’re doomed.” In some of the farming villages built recently, an important person will have some rock that was cleared away dug back up from the rubbish pile and put back in place. The most impossible things have been happening to sabotage the village production, and only replacing the rock makes things return to normal.

Assault on Red Abbey

Play:

I, Brother Cadica, scholar monk of Curia Militum, do commit this event to pen from my first hand observations in this, the month Decembris in the 604th year of the Lion Age. Herein lies my true accounting of the assault on the Red Abbey, wherein a heroic coalition of mankind did bring battle against land entrenched by the foe of all humanity, the accursed and hated warriors of the Kuarlite heresy. These are by my own witness, and from the accounts of those I have spoken to.

The last gasp of Autumn was giving way to Winter, and the winds that had been blowing so fiercely for these past weeks upon the road had gone from merely gusting to also gusting bitterly cold. The frost stays upon the ground longer each morning, and before long, the snow shall come.

The commanders’ tent stood in the shadow of the monstrous Fortress Monastery, this so-called Red Abbey. It squatted upon the nearby mountainside, just on the eastern side of the river that cut through the ancient rock. A superior defensible position, to be sure. I shuddered to imagine what terrible deeds these walls had been raised to protect and hide from the sight of God.

Outriders had reported that the enemy had taken up inside the walls in preparation for the righteous reckoning that was at hand. Already I could see additional palisades and fortifications being placed upon the fortress walls, periodically adorned with sharp ironwork or a human skull placed out in warning. This design was familiar to me, as it would be to any Brother of Curia Militum, for it was a standard of the Gothic Codex Militum to perform such reinforcements without delay. Surely whichever accursed being was in command of that blighted monument was once a soldier of Gotha, to the shame of all mankind.

Scouts had mantled the higher crags across the river to attempt a count of the forces within the fortress. When the reports were gathered, Sir Reinhart concluded that there were around ten dozen of the damned within, as well as three cadres of those dark riders that had been seen months before at Portofino. It seemed that all of the monsters of the region had taken up shelter in this bastion of evil. A climactic battle here could destroy the entire Kuarlite Force, though given the haste at which the armies arrived, an encircling position was not yet established, and there yet remained possible escape routes away from the fortress.

The haste of our fighting force was notable, but perhaps understandable. By the time the soldiers of mankind had set up for the assault on the Red Abbey, they had already been out of supply for weeks. Some disaster had clearly befallen the supply carriages, and the men had become tired and hungry.

In attendance were the Fafnir Dragoons, under orders from Sir Lilian, the fearsome Blood Dragon and under the direct command of their Captain, Otto; Sir Hezke von Heidrich had arrived next, personally leading her Stragosa Strike Force – two units of mighty shock cavalry, three units of dragoons, and four hundred archers – these who had proven so effective at destroying Kuarlites in the past at the Battle of Tusk Grove, who rarely are seen to field archers themselves, preferring, it seemed, to do the killing at close range. The Black Company winged Huszars had arrived, with Lord Herulf von Corvinus, five hundred mighty horsemen and their steeds. All of these arrived disheveled and bedraggled, long since deprived of stores and provisions. When the men and women of the army saw the huge crimson walls, bedecked in spikes and skulls, a thick, stinking smoke billowing forth from somewhere behind the walls, many were losing heart already. Morale was very low, and it was clear that despite their great numbers, the intimidating fortress and its damned defenders were causing the men to waver in their faith. Many of these had expected to be joined, or even lead, by the zealots of the pontifical armies – but these, like many others, had failed to arrive at the battle by the expected time.

In contrast, Sir Garrick von Trakt arrived with his First Wing, 2000 soldiers recently levied from Woefeldt, and these shining peacekeepers were fresh and healthy, with crisp uniforms and in good order – it seems that they had been controlling and measuring their rations from the start, long before whatever incident at the supply lines, in anticipation of the possibility of disaster. Aleric Museldorf, the House Heidrich calculator, had done his job admirably, anticipating all of the possible permutations of the campaign.

Finally, Sir Reinhart von Sonnenheim, the Lord Marshal himself arrived. His force of heavy cavalry had been to the South of the city, having only just arrived, and had been spared the loss of materiel. There was rejoicing that the Lord Marshal had arrived safely, and given the dire circumstances around provisions, he called for the attack to begin immediately.

Passing out orders to all of the captains and commanders, the true prowess of the Order of the Shining Sun became obvious. The Sonnenheim maxim is “We are a Light”, and the truth of these holy words became obvious to my eyes as I beheld what happened next. The tired, dirty and hungry men who had shivered in the shadow of the dark fortress began to light up, and like a single candle spreading its flame from wick to wick, Sir Reinhart passed through the camp delivering orders and speaking with the common soldiers until the force’s spirit was alight like a flame. Reinhart was the torch that relit the hearts of men, and before long, it was clear that this brilliant flame of humanity could drive back the shadow.

Forming into battle lines, Sir Reinhart insisted on leading the attack, and thus his force of heavily armored horse took the vanguard position. Behind him, the main body of the Trakt’s First Wing arrayed themselves in assault formation, followed by the Fafnir and Heidrich cavalry forces, Sir Hezke taking command. Finally, the Black Company and Lord Corvinus remained in reserve to crush the enemy when the opportunity arose, the hammer to this anvil. The uneven forest terrain had the many horses present stamping and braying, uncomfortable making fast charges. The fierce Autumn wind whipping at the proudly flying white eclipse banners had the Heidrich archers repeatedly testing the air with wet thumb, trying to judge the right wind, but looked uneasy. Dirt still clung to the boots from the long, tiring march of most of these brave heroes, but the Trakt infantry and Sonnenheim cavalry in the front of the battle held their poise, and Sir Reinhart blew the warhorn to signal the attack.

The thunder of Sonnenheim hooves roared across the ground, and arrows began flying freely from the walls, whistling through the air above. Sir Reinhart’s plan was to draw their fire by charging the walls to give time for the infantry to reach it with ladders. Arrows struck all around, with few of them coming close to the horsemen in their furious charge. The autumn wind was knocking their arrows of course just as badly, buying precious seconds for the rest of the battlelines to approach. Black fletched Heidrich arrows loosed in return, also skipping and dancing off of the hard stone of the walls without much report. The wind was playing hell on the arrows, and Reinhart chanced a glance over his shoulder, checking on the progress of the rest of the cavalry. Late – the uneven forest slowing them. Speed was critical; Reinhart cursed and whipped his horse faster, but he knew he could rely on the brave men and women trained by Commander Trakt to follow their orders and hold their line. The thought alone of them renewed his stalwart steadfastness.

The Trakt soldiers fared better – taking quickly to the fortress walls with siege ladders, they flooded around the sheer stone three and four ranks thick. Arrows and oil rained down upon them, but their swift climb was already disabling some of the capabilities of those defending the walls – locking up their murder holes with thrusting spears and sheer righteous audacity. Some of the men were already reaching the ladder tops, though none had mantled the top yet. A Trakt ladder came crashing backwards to the ground, men groaning and rolling, but got up quickly, determination less cracked than their ribs.

Elsewhere, the cavalry were catching up to the battle – surrounding the walls and making use of their superior numbers over the Kuarlites to make them defend more ground. Captain Otto fixed his sallet visor into place and scanned the battlefield to assess. A disruption happened at the center of the huge Trakt infantry force near the wall. It seemed that they had already made it through the huge front gate, much faster than expected. As he swung his horse around to get a better look, he reared back, and quickly ordered his horsemen to set up for a rescue charge.

The enemy had opened the front gate themselves and the Trakt forces had charged the breach into the inner bailey. Screams echoed from within – screams of pain, but also screams of righteous zeal. They remembered the advice of their Blood Dragon cohort, and used their stalwart courage to show the enemy that they had made a grave error in inviting them within. Those outside couldn’t see what happened within the walls, but a terrible melee was clearly ongoing and the Trakt force was making the enemy pay full price for every drop of blood they gave to the cause.

Already an hour into the battle, and arrows continued to trade over the wall from the Heidrich positions – peppering the inner bailey where they could make the shot. The sky screamed with missiles as the melee at the inner gate quieted, more Trakt soldiers suddenly having room to push inside. The Fafnir and Heidrich cavalry knew that signaled a catastrophic loss of life inside, and horns were blowing to signal the Trakt infantry out of the way as they charged two and three abreast through the open front gate to engage the enemy with saddle-swords. Sir Hezke adapted the battle plan for her division, and recalculated to take advantage of the chaos of battle – there wasn’t room to charge, but fighting from horseback would still be an advantage that could grant the Trakt soldiers relief enough to rally back up.

It was the Fafnir cavalry that entered the gate first. Captain Otto pulled the valiant but inexperienced Trakt infantry back out of the gate, where a good number of the Kuarlties pursued to do battle outside the wall – where fresh victims could be found. Counting on this, the Fafnir forces kept them occupied just long enough for the full company of Heidrich and Corvinus cavalry to smash into the back of the Kuarlite formation. Despite their size and mass, red armored bodies careened through the air head over heels as the enormous armored horses smashed into them and through them. Kuarlite bodies lay broken in the dirt, sliding down the rocks and hills at the base of the fortress.

When Sir Hezke raised her sallet visor to survey the results, she saw that it had been costly – all the Trakt ground infantry were routed, and the Fafnir dragoons that had made the critical charge possible were unhorsed and bloody, their unity shattered. In just those moments where the Kuarlites had taken the bait, almost half the Kuarlite force were destroyed, but so were the Fafnir and Trakt forces. Sir Hezke caught sight of Sir Reinhart’s banner from the top of the wall. The remaining Trakt soldiers had taken the tops, killed all the defenders, and Sir Reinhart’s group were opening all the fortress gates and slipping down the inner wall. As the sun began to slip to the horizon, the sky bled crimson. Sir Hezke wheeled her squadron around for another charge through that bloody gate as the air screamed with arrows and wind once again.

Sir Reinhart was signaling his remaining Trakt allies that had taken the walls with he and his soldiers to get down the inside wall as quickly as possible. I, myself, had climbed the walls behind the heroes in order to take account of the battle, and I offered to hold the ladder for Sir Reinhart as he descended, such that no soldiers need be left behind. With a seeming reluctance to trust the strength of my monastic arms, Sir Reinhart allowed me to hold the ladder and slipped down. As he climbed, he could already see Sir Hezke smashing into the remaining Kuarlites in the bailey, and recognized their banner right away, for it was his own. The Kuarlites holding the center of the line were his own men – men he had drank with, trained, encouraged. Some of them weren’t surprising – rowdy and reckless men, with a cruel streak, but others were thoughtful and formerly kind. In their midst in acting command was Alaric, the Lord Marshal’s former First Captain. As Sir Reinhart finished his descent, he called a rally to the men with him into fighting formation. The cavalry had been extremely effective when allowed space to do their work, so he knew he must reform the anvil for them to smash against. The Kuarlites seemed distracted with something, standing around a huge burning pit of bodies, black smoke belching forth – the time was now.

Sir Reinhart clashed face to face with his former lieutenant, raining blows on him and calling out indictments while the traitor seemed almost as if he couldn’t be bothered to fully engage. The torn and blood spattered Sonnenheim banner stolen from its company stood high on a pike next to the great fire – and Sir Hezke and the Stragosa strike force were somewhere beyond the black smoke, which was obscuring everything now as the wind whipped it around the field.

From my vantage, I could only see moments of the battle where the smoke cleared – I saw Heidrich horses being skewered on huge crimson lances – I beheld many of the Heidrich forces now in full retreat as the far company of Kuarlite heretics wheeled on them, one leaping up onto the horse itself to tear its head free – I witnessed Sir Reinhart, swords crossed with Alaric, take some kind of battering injury to the shoulder, and fall backwards into the deepest haze, his foe nowhere to be seen. From then forth I could see no more – a hateful cyclone seemed to take up the acrid smoke and push it every which way. I knelt then and did what I could still do, to pray with all my soul to Mithriel, entreating Him to bring us victory in this most righteous of battles. It had already been five long hours of fighting, the sky long since turned as black as the soot that poured through the air, and I did not know how much longer the strength of the righteous spirit of the Lord God could endure in these tired and poorly nourished bodies, facing now such protracted and persistent evils.

Suddenly I beheld Sir Reinhart pulled free from the fighting, set now upon his great warhorse, but slumped as if injured – one of his Sonnenheim honor guard guiding his horse away by lead…but through that black miasma I did see that he clutched in his arms the Sonnenheim banner that was lost, rescued from the traitors, and thus restoring the lost Valor of his Knight Order. I thanked Mithriel for at least this most auspicious sight, though as a new tempest began to whip through the inner bailey with all of the gates now open, the smoke began to clear, and I beheld the new state of the battle.

One final squadron of Trakt spearmen heroically held their line against the Kuarlites, who had been greatly diminished in numbers, but now merely were nearly man to man with the Trakt soldiers. Lord Corvinus attacked them from the rear again and again with what were left of his horsemen – riding them through the now loosened press of the courtyard. The few, bold Trakt men, whose Order of the Broken Sword is famous for their gallantry, heedless of the odds or challenge, had pinned the Kuarlite force into position with their backs to their bonfire, keeping them at bay with their long pikes – even as the Kuarlites lashed out and snapped like animals against them in a berserk fury, sundering and breaking the long pikes they held, heavy great halberds, dropped from Huszar hands, were passed forward hand to hand by brigade to replace the broken spears and keep the pressure up. All the while the Huszars continued to sweep by in slashing wedges, taking one here in the leg, another there on the shoulder, wearing them down, and down and down. Each cleave from the mighty Huszar heavy halberds punished the enemy with heavy, crushing blows that dented the cursed steel and cracked the blacked bone they clad themselves in.

By the end, I shut my eyes and simply prayed in mute witness to the selfless valor, the flaming compassion of these men and women who faced down evil in a place of utter darkness, and did not falter, did not fear. I prayed in thanks, whatever happened next, to the Lord our God who gave us the strength to face such evils with our hearts strong and full of His strength. I prayed in thanks to Sir Reinhart, who had united this coalition with the strengths of each of his asset commanders, uniting the hearts of mankind in echo and tribute to the Prophet himself. No other man could so unite such forces of disparate strengths into so great and awesome a fighting force. For these things, I prayed with gratitude.

The clashing stopped, and a ragged cry lit forth from the bailey below. The smoke blew away, and torchlight penetrated the night, one after another, until all the gloom of the courtyard fell away. Of the forces of humanity, only a ragged squadron of huszars remained fully intact, sweating, soot covered and bloody, but every last heretic driven into darkness; their unholy master grown bored with its chosen slaves, and those that didn’t flee for their miserable lives lay dead in the charnel pit of that cursed clay. The dead were still being separated from the living; Sir Hezke was nowhere to be found. The secrets of the Red Abbey lay exposed, as the bowels of the fortress, clearly descending some great distance below the fortress proper, yawned ominously.

As the remaining horsemen rallied and reformed ranks around the fortress, hunting parties spread out to destroy any fleeing heretics that could be found, returning with godless hearts and heads on the tips of heavy halberds. The first light of dawn cracked over the sky, and as it did, a gentle snow began to fall on the fortress, sticking everywhere along the red stone, banishing the terrible past of this place in blessed recognition of the purity of those who had conquered here. What once was red now glistened with gentle white.

Those who returned with trophies reported that the survivors had fled South, to the Boneyard swamps, soon to meet the cruel answer of humanity for their unspeakable and innumerable treasons against God and His Throne.

I pray that God bless Stragosa and its heroes – and its righteous champion, Sir Reinhart von Sonnenheim, bearer of the Arbiter. God Bless the Throne, and God bless mankind.

The Reaping at the Proving Grounds

Marco rubbed his hands together and blew into his cupped palms. Even after the hand wraps he had been given, his fingers were still covered in little nicks and pricks where the tough hemp leaves had stuck him as he worked. The cold blushed his fingers into a rosy color that made each of the tiny wounds obvious as he worked. When the Festival of Reaping passed by his little hut in the Well District, he thought it would be a good opportunity to at least get away from the city for a while, and maybe make some use of himself, or have an opportunity for new experiences. It had been quite a while now since he’d done anything but beg at the refectorium or hope for work. Humiliating. Maybe some honest, hard work would snap him out of this. Maybe something exciting would happen.

Still, as he tried to bring some warmth back to his fingertips, he was having trouble remembering why he left Hestralia to come out here. His more famous and more handsome older brother, Frazio, had come here too, but he hadn’t come home. Marco still hoped to find him, though with each month he got a little more worried. As he scanned around the big crowd one more time, reflexively looking for his brother’s confident smile, he saw that that monk had come back to hand out some warm cider again. That was a blessing, if nothing else. God but the north gets cold. As he took the cup, muttering his gratitude, Marco silently wished he could remember the monk’s name. He had said it once, at the start, but Marco had forgotten immediately, not actually interested. Now that he kept showing up with kindnesses, Marco wished he remembered, but was too embarrassed to ask.

He took a moment to look over the good work being done while he sipped the hot drink. His group here was bailing up another set of hemp, while another was set up weaving it into canvas. Down the way another team almost as large was getting the next row ready to pull, and way in the distance down the forested hill, he could just see Caelistadt village doing their own Reaping Festival, gathering out in the field, though to be sure they’d gathered in large numbers now. That was a new sight. So was the smoke.

Squinting his eyes, Marco hopped up on a prominent rock, and quickly realizing it wasn’t enough, began to quickly climb a large sentinel tree near their work site. This kind of work he remembered, his hands effortlessly moving, stark contrast to the unskilled gardening. As a topman on The Colozio, he had been one of the fastest climbers aboard, and could loose or trim the shrouds faster than anyone else. It felt good to remember what kind of life he would be going back to after he found Frazio, and mentally decided then that he’d need to get back to a sailing ship sooner rather than later; maybe whatever was leaving from Portofino next. Frazio had moved on, obviously, finding Stragosa just as dismal as Marco had. As Marco mounted the top of the tree he put one hand over his brow to block the sun, and scanned the distance. What he saw confirmed his fears. He gave a midshipman’s whistle, loud as he could to get the attention of those below. Something was very wrong.

As the workers below began to rally up to heed his call, Marco watched as the great crowd down at Caelistadt began to churn. Now that he had a view, he could see that there was panic in the crowd – they scattered in all directions, but some lay still. Something was killing them. Slowly the situation took shape – armed and armored men were cutting them down, and now flames began to leap from roof to roof. “Hey, hey, something’s the matter!” Marco shouted down below, and as he continued to scan, he saw flames elsewhere too. All across the Proving Grounds there were fires, and groups of figures setting them. The village was ablaze now, and the flames could be seen in the boughs of the forests all around.. the logging camps, alight..the hemp fields, where he worked even now…The sounds of screaming began below him.

“FEAR NOT,” a voice from below boomed out, strangely loud and unusually metallic. Marco squeezed the trunk with his thighs as he came about to look below, where he saw a huge, plate-covered warrior, a rusted sollerette pressed into the back of the monk. The monk lay still below it, blood spattering the rock. A huge beast, some kind of monstrous white lion, prowled behind him, snarling at the others who had been bailing hemp. Huge, armored shadows began to step out from the trees in every direction. “THIS PUNISHMENT IS NOT FOR YOU.”

A fresh round of screams carried on the wind with the now thickening columns of smoke all throughout the province, and Marco could see the baggage train, loaded with military supply, come under attack now. Hundreds of figures were running at it from the woods on all fours, tearing the rigging from the carts.

“FEAR NOT,” the warrior repeated, a shaggy brown pelt of a bear or some other great beast slumped across its heavy pauldrons. “FOR I AM TOLOS, THE WANDERER, AND I COME IN THE NAME OF THE RED GOD.” Its voice echoed from deep within its greathelm, and it opened its arms wide as if beginning convocation.

Marco held fast to the upper branches of his tree, and scanned around again to see if there was some kind of relief on its way from the city. He had seen some rough looking marines camped with the Scordato banner near the road, looking exhausted and bedraggled on his way to the farm. He craned around looking for them, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen. Were they already dead? Fled? Surely they wouldn’t just let this happen.

“HEAR MY MIGHTY WORDS, YOU BROKEN AND WEAK. I COME NOT FOR YOU,” and with this, a single almighty CRACK issued forth from the tree, and Marco felt it begin to tip. His guts lurched as he became weightless and his face was assaulted by sticks and branches, unable to spare more than one hand to protect it without careening from the tree entirely. With a hard thud he landed, the wind knocked from his lungs. As he finally unsqueezed his eyes, gasping, he found he was face to face with the kind monk, glassy-eyed, but somehow serene. ‘God,’ he thought stupidly, ‘what was his name?’

“NOT FOR YOU…BUT FOR THEY.” The metallic voice rang out from just above him; he looked up to see the huge ironclad mit pointing its axe at the monk. With its other hand, it pointed toward the supply train. The warrior looked down then at Marco, as if waiting for him to give some reply. Dumbfounded, and still gasping, his mind just went blank. He stammered out nonsense, then simply cried “Please! Don’t!”

The greathelm shook from side to side. “TRULY…PATHETIC.” The huge beast roared from somewhere above him, and Marco felt the jaws close on his spine like an iron gate.

* * *

Miles away, in Stragosa, iron bells began to ring out on the watchtowers as smoke filled the Southwestern sky. It seemed that the time of reaping was just beginning.

Stragosa and Its Peoples; Prologue

It is my hope that this book survives to tell the world of the subject of its title, namely the mysterious city of Stragosa and the people that dwell within it, but if history is any indicator I am indulging in a futile exercise of vanity. The city has existed for an unknown period of time, but no records exist of a settlement in that northwestern corner of Gotha, either at the Parliamentary University of Port Melandir or anywhere else in the Throne to my knowledge.

Reports coming out of the city indicate the ruins are very old, and perhaps with an unknown number of layers of ruins beneath the surface. Is it possible that a city so unknowably old could escape notice for all of recorded history? I think such things impossible, save for either divine intervention, malign urgings, or sorcery. Human nature indicates curiosity would discover such a place and make a note somewhere for it to be found by others were it not somehow protected from such pryings. Which does beg the question: why now? What powers have allowed this place once hidden to be discovered in this time, and to what end? Has it happened before? I’ve a notion it has.

Perhaps such questions, too, are futile to ask but I intend to ask them all the same. If this book ends up like doubtless so many others on some pyre for containing dark secrets not meant for man to know I will rest easy in my grave knowing that I lay my fingers upon fate and tried to move her. I am on a mission to document Stragosa as it is and was in the past without obfuscation, that others might understand it clearly.

For me to accomplish this with any efficacy you must trust in me, my intentions, and my ability to accomplish the task I have taken up. I, Narcisse Lamothe, was born in the lands Bouclair in Capacionne and raised by agents of the Guild Dextera Inflammatio, as my father was among the paragons of that order of magicians. I was issued a stellar classical education to rival the finest noble tutelage in hopes that I might follow in my fathers footsteps, but I was instead taken by the arts and moved to Port Melandir to expand my education. There I excelled, completing the Trivium and Quadrivium in a mere two years, and earning the title Master of the Seven Liberal Arts. For another year I taught basic courses to the newest students while pursuing my own interests, primarily the studies relating to the human mind and human behavior both individually and in groups.

As my year teaching there came to a close I realized that I could either remain there and make a good life for myself instructing others, or I could accomplish new feats in the studies of my passion. I decided on the latter, and so headed to Stromburg where I had several former students and companions who knew me well and could assist me in preparing for my journey. It was there in discussions with a good friend of mine, Robert of Stromburg, that the topic of Stragosa first arose and an interest turned to a drive to find answers.

Tales drift across the mountains of Stragosa as it is; a melting pot of cultures from every corner of the Throne and beyond it. No small number of Rogalian and Gothic Noble Houses have representatives there, but I hear tell of a Prince of Capacionne, a Princess of Hestralia, and even a son of the Padishah Emperor of Sha’ra. All dance upon the graves of thousands, perhaps unknowable millions that came before them, and so Night Malefic walk more commonly there than any other land on God’s Earth. And the reason so many come from so far and bear so great a burden of black sorrow? An artifact known as the Miracle, a slab of stone known to return the dead to life.

I come to this place with no preconceptions, and will record every aspect of my significant encounters with the people, entities, and places of Stragosa as I experience them to the best of my ability. I expect I will encounter individuals of every class and culture to garner their unique perspectives on the present state of the city. I will seek out those who have seen it at each significant event known to us, from its discovery and first settlement to the present day. Further, I expect if stories have traveled as far as the University of layers of ruins beneath the first, there are those delving into those ruins I could speak to in order to discover elements of the cities history before our involvement I would doubtless wish to encounter. Beyond that I will of course record any events of significance I experience in my time there, in order that this text may be not only a record of second hand tales, but a primary source written by a critical academic.

That said, I write this before I cross the mountains, and cannot say what adversity I will meet once there. They say the mountain pass is frozen over at this time of year, but I will not allow this to stop me. I have been told there is a trail guide that knows of a goat path they have used in previous winters to escort travelers to the city on foot. Though I am loathe to leave my carriage behind, adventure waits for no man and I will not be left behind for want of creature comforts.

One last note, and perhaps a somewhat morbid one. If you are reading this text and it comes to an end with no conclusion, only an abrupt stop with little in way of explanation, you must assume I have passed before completing my work. Stragosa is notoriously dangerous, awash in monsters, heretics, and wicked souls. If I fall to any such beast and do not complete my work, I ask you pray for my soul, and that someone else might take up the torch and finish my work. Let curiosity and a sincere desire for truth drive us into a more complete understanding of the mysteries of the world and our fellow man.

The Soul and Its Burdens

Blessings Unto Our Lord Benalus Who Protects Us All,

Brethren, it has been commanded to me by the Seventeenth Preceptor of The Tower to write down these words. May Durna strike at the hands of any who would steal this book. May Manach’s doors be ever closed.

It is said that the soul has many parts and that those parts can be seen in every part of life, from the smallest of vermin unto the greatest of Kings. Gratus of Merlanda said it thus: “The animal knows its own life – vir, it knows its needs – apetite, it knows its options – instinct.”

From Gratus we can see that the next step is the Common Man – The common man has all of the attributes of an animal, but those attributes have grown into the Human Qualities.

Vir remains although some amongst the benighted call it Corpus or Flesh. We contend that that is an insufficient category to describe the entirety of the lifeforce that is the physical body and so we will continue to use the ancient Vir to describe what we are attempting to explain.

Appetite grows to the Human Quality of – Meaning. The Human has more than just the essential appetites required for survival. Meaning encompasses all of the things that make a Human live in an appropriate way. While everyone must eat food and drink water, Meaning is unique for each Human. Thus we see the vast multitude of ways to live in our Blessed Kingdom.

From Instinct grows the Human Quality of – Act. Knowing one’s options and strategies to survive grows into the ability to plan and think into the future. The Holy Towers of Menach, may his Name rise up forever, cannot be built on instinct alone, no matter what that fool Ablatius thinks. To Act is to secure one’s Meaning. When these two Human Qualities interact all things can be accomplished.

Now we turn to the Difficulties of the Burdened.

Those amongst us who are born to Rule and to Teach can at times find themselves Burdened by a surfeit of these Human Qualities that can, if not dealt with carefully, become Consuming.

The Hero’s Vir can become Wyrd if they sacrifice the Vir to accomplish the tasks set before them. The Meaning can become sacrificed to the Purpose of the task set before them. The Act can become Judgement when the needs of all must be placated over the needs of the Hero. Hark well, those who would take upon them the Burdens of State – the sacrifices are Great and the suffering is Deep.

This is why we must Honor but also Watch those who would take on the Burden for the benefit of us all. Do not take on the Burden unless you are called to it, for it will burn you to Nothing in time.

Glory and Honor to Our Protector King Benalus on this First Year of His Reign
Glory and Honor to Dread Manach, May His Name Conquer Every Sky
Glory and Honor to Tower 5, May We Grow Forever

A Brief History

It’s Spring, and Allegra is 5. She chases Luciano around their father’s vineyard, pretending at the serious work of trimming and twining the vines in preparation for the growing season. Fausto, only a year younger, is much too much of a baby to do such important work. When Allegra is made to sit too long in one place, she shreds things – wide brown grass and veiny green grape leaves if she can get them, unattended burlap sacks and bright ragged skirt hems if she can’t. Her life is a peaceful cycle of chores and learning practicalities, and there are always other children around for her to play with.

It’s Summer, and Allegra is 9. Every morning when she wakes up, more of the sour green rocks hanging in clumps from the vines have transformed into precious grapes. Luciano is learning how to tell when a crop is ready by taste and feel. Fausto joins her at their mother’s feet whenever possible, but more and more often lately Nerina is nowhere to be found. Allegra has noticed that the people in the village whisper behind their hands when they think she won’t notice, but it doesn’t concern her. She makes up songs about them as she does her chores, imaging she sings to a bustling tavern instead of a dusty storage barn.

It’s Fall, and Allegra thinks she might be 12. She is fast, and small, and clever. She imagines what her brothers must be like now. She understands Aquila better – where it’s safe to sleep, who it’s safe to talk to, who will take your money and give you protection and who will just take your money. The basements and alleys are full of rats, but no one bothers her as she works. And so she works, and scratches by, and dreams of barrels of wine and hot fires.

It’s Winter, and Allegra is 15, though she couldn’t have told you that herself. She no longer sits by the canals, or banters with the whores in the taverns, or scuffles with the other urchins. She keeps her head down. Sometimes while she works she reaches for something too quickly, not thinking, and the raw flesh where her fingers used to be scrapes unbearably against the bandages.

It’s Spring, and Allegra is 18… or near enough. The kitchens in the palace are already too hot, and each night she curls up on the floor wet with sweat and smelling of acrid soap and cooking food. Even still, it is safe, consistent work. She has no time for anything that isn’t food- chopping, cooking, cleaning, running things from place to place. But the palace, for all its size, keeps as much in as it keeps out. So she watches, and listens. She learns.

It’s Summer, and Allegra is 20 – or as the young Princess puts it – “as ancient as the sea.” She wears fancy dresses and tries to keep the middle Dilacorvo child from doing anything too terribly wild. She knows which guards will take a bribe, and how much, and what their limits are. She knows the vices of those who cling to the royal family like leeches, and she knows the virtues of the beggars that crowd the alleys at night looking for noble charity. She does not dream.

It’s Fall, and Allegra is 32. The harvest is an apprehensive time with the grapes still fighting to make sense of the Stragosan soil and strange weather, but they have not failed her yet. Every market brings a new horror, and she leans on her people. Quietly relies on them. She wonders sometimes- often- if her little princess will succeed, and tries to make sure that there will be something in Gotha worth returning to. But winters are not kind in Stragosa as they are in Hestralia, and she can feel the cold creeping back into her bones…

Shariqyn: Ettiquette towards Wives (translated)

Text translated from Shariqyn to Rogalt:

” Women are the greatest of treasures, and men who marry must lavish them in comforts and luxuries. In Shariqyn society, a man is incapable of having honors for himself – he only gains esteem in those things he gives to his wife, be they directly useful such as fine clothing, or symbolic of some accomplishment, like a stone that may only be found in the place he has conquered in war, a man’s social value is reflected most strongly in the ways he can grant these things to his wife.

A Shariqyn man, aside from showing his devotion to his wives through presenting them with wealth and comfort, is in many ways judged by his diction, that is, his choice of words, in relation to their women. For example, a man who bestows wealth upon his wife, but does not listen to her advice and does not tell her he appreciates her council, but instead disregards it, is seen as a poor husband. Should he use language that is ambivalent or lacks appropriate enthusiasm, his wife or others observing a conversation between spouses may take offense. Other women are often warned and the man, more often than not, ceases to be able to find another wife, regardless of his wealth. Other men also look down upon the man as he has failed to fulfill his duties to his wife.

A Shariqyn man who has recently married is required to remind his wife of his affection for her no less than once daily. The most common form of this is simply words of praise followed by the statement ‘al enahim ebi kali ehr’ which roughly translates to ‘an oasis in a sea of sand’. In the days of nomads, a life which some still endure, oasis are the life’s blood of the dessert. An oasis is that which gives life where there is otherwise none, similar to how a wife may give a better life to her husband and bring new life into the world of his blood. Even after the two have been married for many years, it is important for him to remind her of his affections through words and actions lest she cease to give him council or heirs.

When a woman married to a Shariqyn man gives birth to a child, she is honored. Traditionally, the woman’s bestows a gift upon her just after his child is born. Though no gift can compare to that which she has given him through the growth and birth of his child, it is important that a man give his wife something that has immense meaning and/or value after her first nursing and rest after the child is born. Should she die during childbirth, a single drop of the water which holds the mothers soul is swept over the forehead of the newborn child so that her protection and wisdom may guard over him always. After a woman who has died in childbirth is laid to rest, her husband is required to take a grieving period in which he may not marry again for three months post his wife’s death. The gift he had meant to give to his wife is to be later passed to the child when they become seven along with a story honoring his late wife, the child’s mother. “

Death or Freedom, A Legendary Tale by Clagh O’Mugnahn, True Son of Dunland

To you, my humble reader, I bid welcome and congratulations. You have the pleasure of reading one of the finest works of literature ever to be produced in the world, and certainly the finest in Gotha. For it is I, Sebastian de Aquila, who the people acclaim as none other than the most infamous charmer, poet, dandy and impeccable lover of Costa Luceste; whose penmanship and swordsmanship is unparalleled, whose poise and grace is unmatchable, and whose sonnets and ballads woo the noble ladies of Aquila.

Alas, my humble bibliophile, I cannot once again steal the show, as I did to Gottfried von Laatzen in the summer of 600. Instead I will narrate to you the description of a man who, after sharing an evening sharing glasses of wine and flagons of dark ale, I have come to admire as a man of action, of tenacity, of effrontery, and of intrepid spirit. He calls himself Clagh O’Mugnahn, which he has disclosed translates to “Stone, descendant of Mugnahn,” in Gothic. It is a fitting name for him as he is by trade a miner. You may be tempted to cease your perusal of this document upon learning that the subject is but a common man, but I bid you to continue, as I have seldom met a soul as gilded as that of Good Clagh. And it is known that great deeds often stem from humble origins, as I portrayed in my critically acclaimed drama Blacksmith of Wood.

That night, as the ale and spirits cascaded, Good Clagh regaled me with the origination tale of his surname. It seems that long ago in the Age of Heroes there was a Good King Caomhán and his loyal knight, the seminal Mugnahn, who lived on the island of Íomhair, on which Good Clagh and his house still live. Good King Caomhán’s rule was wise and just and the people thrived under his jurisdiction, but those from without began to grow envious of Íomhair’s growing bounty. All of these ne’er-do-wells coalesced under the banner of Nathair, a sea-captain who had set his sights on possessing fertile lands. The bannermen of Good King Caomhán and Cunning Nathair met on the field of Réimse Glas to decide once and for all who the Lord of Íomhair would be. At this point in the telling of this tale Good Clagh must have had enough dark ale to kill a lesser man, and yet he still continued though I admit that I may have misheard some of the names given in his account due to my own battle with the spirits of the bottle. Continuing on, Good Clagh details how, at the height of the battle, Good King Caomhán is fighting furiously with the Cunning Nathair but ever so slowly, the Good King is gaining the upper hand. Then, just as it seems that the Good King is about to deal the finishing blow, Cunning Nathair transforms into a giant winged blue serpent, who is hereafter referred to as Nathair Gorm. Nathair Gorm regains their advantage, and the Good King is struck low by Nathair Gorm’s devilish form. The men of Íomhair, suffering greatly against Nathair’s Invaders, begin to buckle at the sight of Nathair Gorm and they begin to flee. It is at the point that the Great Warrior Mugnahn, previously defending his lord’s life against the Invaders, shouts a challenge of single combat to Nathair Gorm. The conditions are thus; if Mugnahn dies, his people shall be free from persecution. If Nathair Gorm dies, the Invaders shall turn back and be exiled from this land. Possibly incensed by his recent fortunes and amused by the absurd proposition that the Invaders would agree to the outcome one way or another, Nathair Gorm accepts. These two titans clash and Nathair Gorm is taken aback by Mugnahn’s ferocity. Mugnahn fights with the strength of twenty men, and bit by bit, he is able to pierce Nathair Gorm’s armored hide enough to deliver the final fatal blow. The Good King’s men cheer and Nathair’s Invaders are shocked by Mugnahn’s ferocity but move as if they mean to continue the battle just as it had left off, that is until they look upon the visage of Mugnahn, who has stripped bare and bathed himself in the blood of the defeated Nathair Gorm. The sight was too much for Nathair’s Invaders to bear and they turned and fled back into the sea from which they came.

It is my opinion that such an outlandish tale cannot possibly be anything but a child’s fable, with a narrative structure similar to Certainty Of Eternity, but Good Clagh told the tale with such impassioned zeal that I could naught by be impressed. Having at this time been into our cups for some while, I bid the Good Clagh good night and slipped silently into a slumber, but I hope to have the pleasure of dining with the True Son of Dunland once again.