Friday, 17 May 2013

[Short Story] Maiden

From the Journal of Julia Aurelius

17th Sun of the Third Month - 187th Year of the Milvian Age

Dear Journal,

Today I left my father's house. A lot has happened over the last few weeks, and I regret not to have written in this time; no doubt whoever reads this journal will attribute it to simple idleness if I do not mention so now. Since the Lords' Court was dissolved and the war declared, my honoured father and my brothers have been making preparations for war. They muster troops and meet with generals daily; it occurs to me that I have barely seen or spoken to them, so much of their time has been spent poring over maps. My father says that he hates it all, the pomp and the responsibility, but I can tell he's lying; he was born and bred a soldier, and when he speaks of strategies, horses and banners I see his eyes light up. He hasn't looked that way since mother was alive. It's nice, in a way, to see him so lively.

More importantly for me, in the last week or so I've begun correspondence with the King himself. It's so exciting; I treasure his letters, he writes with such wit and insight that they are a delight to read. He's a fine man, and he wishes to make me his bride. Though I admit the possibility of marriage is daunting, I think that I shall be happy in the Hearthlands. I have had little to do these past few years but study, and in my studies I have found a love of governance; its intricacies and pitfalls are to me an elaborate game with extremely high stakes, one whose rules I have read at length and long to test.

As I said, today was the day of my departure. The journey will perhaps be more arduous than normal; the Thesis Floodlands and the Winding Marsh, once the most convenient route, are now considered enemy territory and I do not trust the Lords' honour in dealing with noble ladies to hold firm should the lady in question be in negotiations to become Queen. Fire bless me, but I trust my escorts to see me there safe. What is in store for me, I wonder? Only time will tell.

- Julia


19th Sun of the Third Month - 187th Year of the Milvian Age

Dear Journal,

Today we reached the docks, and a ship is being prepared for my travel. It was planned for us to depart the same day we arrived at Atrium, but a change on the part of my arrangements means that a large ship must be procured before we can sail. We were going to take a small skimmer around the coast, but my escorts have since decided that this is unsafe and we are to brave the southern sea. True, we run the risk of piracy, but pirates are less of a danger than Lord Everett's navy.

I have taken it upon myself, while confined to the simple room I have been afforded in one of the less conspicuous inns, to learn the names of my protectors. The knights, on the whole, have enough sense and manners to keep their lewd soldier's banter behind closed doors rather than spouting such things to my face; though not enough sense to remember that the walls in this inn are painfully thin. Sir Lane, one of the older men, is the one I feel most of a connection to; I believe he is also the only one to have fought in my father's honour guard. He spent a morning with me today, while the others drank their pay; we discussed my future at length. He expressed concern over my marrying a man that I did not love, and I ended up having to explain to him why such things aren't important in high politics. He seemed dissatisfied with my answer, but was kind enough not to press the matter further.

I have spent a great deal of time today staring out of my window. I have a view of the harbour, and to watch the ships come and go is greatly relaxing. There was one, a great thing with sails of green, gilded cloth, which I believe came from the Solar Empire. The men from that ship were a strange sort; darker even more than I, and all wearing armour of gold. I have no idea what metal it was made from, it looked too sturdy for simple jewellery, but it was very pretty.

I ought to rest soon; I've been known to react badly to sailing on occasion, and if we are to brave the open sea I would rather not do so without sleep.

- Julia


20th Sun of the Third Month - 187th Year of the Milvian Age

Dear Journal,

The ship I have found myself on is a marvellous thing. It takes the waves better than any other such vessel I've ever been on, and the crew are all far friendlier than I would have thought. To my surprise, the first day of our journey has been relatively smooth; though I suppose we are not so far out as to incur the sea's wrath. I seem to be doing better than Sir Lane, at least. He seems uncomfortable around the water; disguising it with an admirable layer of humour, but hiding it poorly. I suspect he cannot swim.

I'm thankful for the few books I brought along with me on this journey; particularly Oberon's Histories, and the Lost City. The Histories are not precisely 'neutral' in tone, but this breathes life into the events described far more so than many other dusty tomes of lore which I find scattered about the shelves these days. Likewise the Lost City is a grand tale; though it bears little connection with reality, I find it a pleasing escape... perhaps it is also a little on the morbid side, though to the imagination of a kept princess such as I that matters little. It is a story of adventure... much like the adventure I find myself on now, in many ways.

As I proceed on my way I find the magnitude of what lies ahead beginning to sink in. I've been re-reading the letters between myself and Flavius, and it dawned on me that I only have six. It seems a queer thing, to be discussing marriage with a man whom I have all of six letters from; but the civil war necessitates such haste perhaps. I understand precisely why he wishes to rush into things so quickly, his position on the throne is left somewhat dubious in the light of his lack of an heir or wife. Hopefully my helping him will help stabilise matters, perhaps even avoid open warfare; though my father will no doubt be disappointed if no-one ever comes to blows, I think it would be better to shed as little blood as we can. Besides, the King seems a pleasant enough soul to spend my time with.

- Julia


24th Sun of the Third Month - 187th Year of the Milvian Age

Dear Journal,

I'm getting sick of this boat. Never have I been so violently ill for so long; the storm took us for two days, and in that time I barely had an hour of uninterrupted sleep. We were thrown about by the waves near-constantly, and one can only endure so much before their stomach becomes wholly uncooperative... as I'm sure I've written before, I dislike sailing.

Sir Lane has been extremely supporting during this unpleasantness, despite his obvious distaste for water. Then again, his role largely revolved around keeping my hair out of the way while nature did the rest. Fire help me, I shouldn't be admitting that in a document which will no doubt be published one day. Still; he is a kind man. It will grieve me greatly to depart from his company, he's become a true friend to me over the last few days. Perhaps I could keep him with me after my marriage; I am under the impression from Oberon's Histories that it is traditional for Queens to take a trustworthy man for their protector... though it is normally a man taken from among the high nobility, perhaps we could break from precedent for once. To elevate Sir Lane into the noble class might prove fruitful, both for my own safety but also for the Kingdom as a whole.

I have been told by my father that the rebel Lords think themselves acting on behalf of the people. I understand that conditions have been strained recently, with our inter-seas trade slowing somewhat and the food scarcities in some outlying parts of the Kingdom. To have a man of common birth become noble would surely placate them, and the fact that he has done so not by nepotism but rather because of his long military service would send the right message to them. Loyalty to the crown will not go unrewarded, and a worthy man can change his class. This is something I shall bring up at the marital negotiations.

- Julia


25th Sun of the Third Month - 187th Year of the Milvian Age

Dear Journal,

We docked in the Hearthlands today, and I'm glad to be back on dry land once more. The seas have not been kind to me, though I have developed a new appreciation for the plight of the sailor; they have served admirably through the storm, and though my stomach was sure to show its disapproval of the circumstances I never felt as if I was in any danger. They kept the ship secure and on course despite it all. I intend to see to it that they are paid triple their normal rates for such a journey; they deserve the rest.

We were welcomed at the docks by a royal party today, and I confess that I was so hideously nervous when the King approached me that I merely squeaked out my greetings with all the grace of a church-mouse. He was kind about the whole thing, and seemed to understand what I was feeling; it now appears I am also to marry a man of empathy. It took me a while to become at-ease speaking to him, but the walk from the docks to the castle where I am now lodged gave me enough time to at least accomplish that. Making arrangements at the table of diplomacy tomorrow may be a little more difficult than I anticipated if my nerves get the better of me, but thankfully I have managed to allow Sir Lane access to the proceedings also. His presence is greatly soothing; he seems to have a calm air about him that I cannot help but participate in.

My lodgings are pleasant, though they are not prepared for royalty; it is not the normal thing for fortresses in the Hearthlands to keep guest rooms, apparently, so my accommodation had to be put in order without time to acquire the comforts a woman of my station is accustomed to. It's no matter, really, as I keep in mind that I am here to negotiate my way into the chambers of the monarchy... and no doubt the palace of the Milvian Kings is far grander than even my own home. I write now with great expectations, and a willingness to see what tomorrow will bring... which reminds me, tomorrow is the first of the new month and I ought to arrange my tithe. I'm sure it won't be a problem; I am, after all, the King's bride-to-be.

- Julia

[Lore] The Smith's Craft

“Most people think of metal as a cold, dead thing; but we smiths know better. Metal is a being as lively and flighty as you or I and it takes careful negotiation, not mere force, to extract its secrets.”
Marcellus Don, ‘On the Fundaments of Metalwork’, c.30 MA.


Within the Milvian Kingdom, three materials prevail in providing the base for the vast majority of military equipment and general paraphernalia.
                Rugged Iron is an ore-like state of unrefined metal, made simply by digging up iron ore and smelting it in a furnace. It is a heavy, dense material which is used more for its cheapness and wide availability rather than quality; its name being derived from the rough, mottled texture of its surface. Rugged iron is recognisable for its dark grey or even near-black colour, and is generally used in simple, durable items such as door nails, hinges and under special circumstances building struts. The Northern Tribes have been known to use it for weaponry or armour in certain circumstances, but it is rarely used for this purpose in the Kingdom simply because its weight makes it impractical. Each Milvian King wears a Black Crown, an ancestral item given to King Valerius Milvian by the Northern Tribes; the origins of the item often glossed over due to the uncomfortable political implications of a war against the Northern Tribes waged under a crown of their design and making.
                Refined Iron, generally used without its epithet, is the result of removing the impurities from Rugged Iron. Not carrying the same imperfections, it is far lighter and more malleable than Rugged Iron; easier to dent but far less brittle and, most importantly of all, easier to work with in intricate detail rather than large slabs. The vast majority of military equipment is made from Iron, of varying quality and elegance depending on the methods and persons involved in its production.
                Silversteel is a newer form of metal alloy which came about in around the 74th year of the Milvian Age. It is made by smelting together refined iron along with traces of silver and other metals. This reinforces the metal greatly and gives it a very clean, shiny appearance. It is becoming increasingly prevalent in the creation of arms and armour for the richest of society, as well as in making certain forms of jewellery; however due to the expenses incurred in manufacture it is unaffordable to use on any sort of ‘mass’ scale and instead is relegated to wealthy patrons willing to put forward the necessary gold to afford it. That said, Silversteel is excellent for military use due to it being both lighter and stronger than refined iron, and increasing numbers of nobles (including the seventh Milvian King, Flavius) are investing in it as a matter of personal protection and public status. To be clad in a full suit of silversteel armour is to be clad in pure prestige, or so the saying goes.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

[Short Story] Solace

The maid sat upon her soft bed, eyes twinkling gently as candlelight shone softly upon the side of her pale face; her bright red lips a plump, dark mark across an otherwise snowy complexion. Her eyes were in shadow, her long black hair falling gently across her shoulders as she sat; a silken veil to frame the intricacies of her face. She smiled gently, her gentle hands caressing the face of her lover; his head laying upon her lap, his earnest blue eyes looking up at her with a mix of pain, confusing and deep longing which she was so utterly familiar by this point that she was beginning to forget what they looked like when he was not so painfully worried. But she didn't mind; it was her pleasure, if not also her duty, to sit and listen as he talked away the weight of the world. Her lover was a kind man, with a pious heart and a conflicted soul; he had been merciful to her when no-one else would even acknowledge she was there.

Her father had been a man of the north; a barbarian, by all reckoning, and her mother a simple peasant-girl from one of the outlying farms. Her birth was seen by the villagers as a betrayal; she was an abomination, the seed of the enemy. A girl not so strong or so tall as to gain acceptance in the tribes, but her pale skin likewise excluded her from passing for a pure-bred southerner. So for years she had run, and hidden, and been beaten and chased, until finally she collapsed at the feet of the man who now lay in her lap; he had taken her in, fed her, and loved her when no-one else in the cruel, cruel kingdom had ever seemed to. And so she made a point to sit and listen, as her service to him, as he told her of the many great wonders and the many dark secrets which his position led him to see and know.

"They cut you so deeply, dear..." she said in a soft, whispering tone. "But they are simple men; what harm can they do you, Flavius?"

"Three men don't scare me, I'm not so weak as to let that force me to kneel." he said simply, a dry smile upon his face as he looked up into hers. "What scares me is the thousands of men who they command. Three provinces, love, three! Ah, if it were just one then I wouldn't be so perturbed, even that I could put down... but this isn't a rebellion, it's a civil war."

"And are you not a King, my dearest?" the maid said, planting a lingering kiss upon his forehead; his short blonder hair tickling her cheek a little as she bent over. "Isn't it true that you descend from the man who united the seven kingdoms under a single royal house?"

"Love, I am not Valerius." he shook his head solemnly. "I've never seen real war. Skirmishes with the north perhaps, but I don't know how to lead an army in pitched battle; let alone against someone with Corrigan's experience. I remember, as a child, watching him fight my father in the tournaments; it all seemed so fun then, so friendly and exciting. But now... all I can recall is the way he moved his sword. It was so fast that you could barely see it; just a blurred line of silversteel, strong enough to knock my father off his feet five times over..."

The maid patted his head, and he sat up; allowing her to craw over to the other side of the bed. He raised an eyebrow as she took a small wooden box from underneath the large four-poster bed's matress. He had never seen it before; which could only mean that it was a carefully guarded secret, if she had managed to keep it out of sight for so long. It was about the size of a large book, made from simple wood with a small iron latch keeping it shut tight. She opened it, slender fingers dancing about the lock, and removed from it a few small scraps of paper and a necklace.

"This," she explained, "Is everything I know about my father."

She handed the box's contents to Flavius, and he looked through them idly. The first thing he looked at was the necklace; a delicate thing, made from woven metal and bearing a religious mark on it; a tiny flame carved onto the face of the locket at its end. It was pretty.

"Lovely." he said, somewhat intrigued.

"The northerners believe that wearing symbols like that can bring you luck; to have a fire next to your heart, they thought, might make the fire inside you harder to snuff out." she said, eyes glazed over slightly.

"Superstitious." Flavius murmured.

"Traditional." she corrected, "As traditional as that crown you wear. What did that symbolise again... strength, and humility? Perhaps it's time for your line to adopt a new symbol. You could call it the heart-stone, perhaps."

Flavius rolled his eyes, and she giggled. It was nice, she thought, to tease him when she could; though she knew not to mock him, and would never want to anyway, it gave her a pleasant rush to poke fun at the monarch. It was a pleasure that her fellow-servants would never enjoy. He smiled, shrugged, and placed the locket down in the box again. The next thing he found inside was a piece of paper with a black, swirling pattern. He recognised what it was, at least; a tribal mark. Each northern tribe had a mark, and a person's family name and the like would be denoted through additions. It was said that those who knew the marks could ascertain their whole life-story simply by looking at it.

"I don't suppose you know what this one means?"  he said, looking at it. The maid crawled over to him, resting her head upon his shoulder gently and peering at it.

"The two dots on the left-hand side mean that he was the second child of his family, I think. And the line underneath it all means he was a smith. Apart from that, I don't know... there are no books on the subject in the castle library."

"I'll have one bought." Flavius muttered, more to himself than to his companion, but she quickly shook her head at the thought.

"No, no. You can't be seen to take an interest in that." she said firmly. "You are the Milvian King; the northern tribes are a blight on the land that is rightfully yours, remember?"

"Is one war at a time not enough, that I must carry on the crusades?" Flavius said exasperatedly.

"The crusades are part of the Kingdom's soul now, my liege." she said, her tone commanding. "To break from that particular tradition would only lose you more allies than you already have."

"And what of your people?"

"They're not my people." she growled. "They are my father's people."

King Flavius looked at her, smiling slightly.

"Oh, that you were Queen and I not King, then we'd have the type of ruler to see us through this." he said, laughing a little. "Bless you, love, you're a smarter woman than I, despite all my education and all my private tutoring."

"Which is... which is something I've been meaning to talk to you about." the maid said, biting her lip. Flavius looked at her, his jovial smile falling flat as he saw the pained expression upon her face.

"...What, love?"

"Please, don't call me that. Not right now." she said, shaking her head slightly. She placed a hand upon his cheek, bringing his head around so that she could look him in the eye. "...You're right in saying that you need a Queen."

Flavius immediately stood, a furious expression on his face.

"No!" he yelled, "We are not discussing this again!"

"Listen to me..." the maid began, but was immediately cut off before she could force any further words from her mouth.

"Why?" Flavius muttered. "This matter was settled long ago, we agreed; we swore."

"Listen to me, Flavius, I..."

"You would have me throw myself away? What of us, what of everything we've said and done?"

"Listen to me, Flavius, or so help me I will send you to the fires far quicker than any army would!" the maid screamed furiously, tears streaming down her cheeks in a great flood which to her felt like hot oil poured across her face, so painful was that moment. Silence fell upon the room, as the two looked at each other; the King and the Maid, the two forbidden lovers.

"...Why, love? Why is this so important to you?"

"Because, it is with an heir that your position is safe. It's with a Queen that this city is safe while you are afield. And for all our talk and all our promises, I cannot be your wife Flavius. I am an outcast and a commoner; to marry me would spell the end of your dynasty, and a chaos far worse than anything that three dissatisfied Lords could trump up to meet you." she smiled weakly. "I will not abandon you, dearest. I'll be there, and I'll be whatever I'm needed to be... wetnurse, nanny, or confidant. I already hear talk, gossip coming through the walls. People are getting suspicious as to why my quarters are in this part of the keep, and why I am so furnished. If nothing else, it would put rumours to rest if I were to be a handmaiden."

"...And who do you propose?" Flavius said, his voice for once cold, calculating and rational. He cast his eyes to the floor, pinching his forehead between his fingers firmly. "I know you have a candidate in mind... it's just like you."

The maid hesitated for a moment, a little unwilling to speak her mind. But catching sight of her lover's expression, she thought it better to save them any more heartache than was necessary and make her intentions clear.

"When the Lords came up for court, I served tea to their retinues. Aside from the comments that one might expect, I am after all an 'exotic' servant that Lords may be unfamiliar with, I was able to listen to them talk. Lady Julia I thought to be a fine fit... she is young, intelligent, witty... and beautiful."

"But how could she ever possibly compare to you?" Flavius said, coming close to her with a weak smile upon his face. She returned his smile, equally half-heartedly.

"She will be a good Queen, I'm sure. What's more, she can be Queen..." The maid looked to her royal lover for a moment, before wrapping her arms around him in a calm embrace; burying her face in his neck. Flavius held her close, his strong arms holding her tightly. "...And I'm sure that you will be happy together."

"And this what you want?" Flavius said, tears in his own eyes now.

"More than anything, my dear. More than anything."

Flavius kissed the top of her head tenderly, doing as much as he could to retain his composure.

"...Then I will make the arrangements."

With these words, it was done; though the two did not withdraw from each other for some time further. They stood, clasped together, their hot tears mingling as they were bathed in candlelight; casting a simple silhouette on the wall as they breathed together.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

[Short Story] Schism

The man walked slowly but deliberately, each one of his footsteps heavy and intentional. It was a rhythmic, plodding pace which would have been altogether serene had it not been for the accompanying clanking of the man's thick iron chains and the furious roar of a crowd baying for blood. He stopped for a moment, somewhat weary from the walking in the warm springtime sun, but was quickly prodded into motion once more by a nearby soldier wearing the King's colours. The man's vision was obscured somewhat by the thick cotton hood over his head, but he still had enough sight to find his way to the large wooden block on which he was told to rest his head.

"Fine day for an execution, don't you think?" a voice came from behind Lord Morgan's shoulder as he peered out from amidst the crowd. The voice belonged to a somewhat short but broad man, tanned, thick-haired and somewhat scarred, wearing all the trappings of a noble; though Lord Morgan knew him to be of common birth.

"What makes you say that, General?" Lord Morgan replied, looking back to the man on the podium in front of them; squinting slightly as light shone off the blade of the headsman's raised axe. He turned back to the man beside him just in time to hear the weighty thud of an axe hitting wood, and the excited applause of the crowd as they cheered for the swift, bloody act. "What did he do? Presumably something horrendous, if he's to be sent to the fires."

"Does it matter? They want someone to blame for their problems, and we give them someone." General Tarquinius said, a smile crossing his lips; the General had always been a somewhat cruel man, Lord Morgan suspecting this to be the reason for his steady advance up the ranks. The two men had never seen eye-to-eye particularly frequently, both due to a slight difference in height and a slight difference in approach. Whereas the General was stumpy, strong and grizzled Lord Morgan had preferred to stay out of conflict where he could avoid it; his physique tending towards the taller, thinner and decidedly more handsome end of the spectrum. Lord Morgan brushed a few sleek black hairs from his face, looking back to the stage once more as the dead man was dragged from it.

"It matters if you care about the people. They're hard-pressed at the moment, and crying out for someone to blame; are we simply letting them drink the blood they crave regardless of who it belongs to?" Lord Morgan turned to the General, adjusting the collar on his thick military coat slightly. "I fear that indulging them will only lead to more unrest."

"And what would you have us do, Morgan?" General Tarquinius frowned. "They're hard-pressed because there's a war on. Would you suggest we roll over and surrender to the barbarians after nearly two centuries of war?"

"Of course not; I know as well as you do that they must be pacified, and I would not have Milvian's crusades to be in vain. But surely... this will only leave the people unsatisfied when they realise that the criminals we keep throwing their way are not the source of their problems." Lord Morgan sighed.

"So long as they don't rebel and they keep producing goods, then order is maintained and there's no problem. Be realistic, Morgan; what are they apart from their state?" General Tarquinius shrugged. "They're citizens of the Milvian Kingdom as, I remind you, are you and I. They have been for one-hundred and eighty-seven years at this point... take that away and they're a mob with no purpose."

The General patted Morgan on the shoulder gently, before walking slowly away; Morgan left to scratch his chin and stare at the General's back as he departed. He pondered this for a moment; were the people so far gone at this point that, without the harsh touch of the Milvian kings, they would dissolve into chaos? Most probably. But was this the only way left? Surely not.


Lord Morgan sat in the Council Chamber as the Lords bickered away at one another before the meeting. It was a dull chore, to meet each season as they did, but one that was wholly necessary for the smooth running of the Kingdom. One Lord, an older man named Corrigan, sat across the spacious chamber from him; giving him a small nod of recognition as he did so, a gesture which Morgan returned. Corrigan was a fairly bold man, difficult to deal with but loyal and uncompromising in his principles; his grey hair marked years of experience beyond anything the other Lords, or even the King, had to their name. Morgan had always gotten along with him better than the other Lords... perhaps it was their personalities, or perhaps just coincidence, but he seemed a more worthy conversation partner than any of the other fatted nobles.

The Lords fell into silence, clambering to their feet as the King entered the large chamber, the loud metallic footfalls of his ceremonial armour ringing out on the smooth stone panes as he walked in; retainers making sure that the back of his long red cloak did not snag and pull any oil lamps to the floor. He marched to the head of the table and sat in the immense wooden throne there, placing himself neatly on the velvet cushion and leaning his head against its intricately carved back; the fractured, black-coloured iron crown he wore clinking slightly as it met the wood behind him.

"His Majesty, King Flavius Milvian bids you sit at his table of Lords." the Herald proclaimed boldly. "Do so now, in good grace and good peace. As fire sustains us, we shall parley."

The King nodded, and the Lords sat once more. The words were a little clumsy, but had been in use since the first Milvian King all that time ago; and breaking from tradition was never something the Lords were particularly happy to do. Lord Morgan sighed to himself, turning his attention towards the King as he read out this season's proclamation; on the whole merely affirming all that they were already doing, for the Kingdom appeared mercifully free of poxes and famines for the meantime. There was mention of the barbarians also, if only to note that the crusade was to continue and they were putting up more resistance than originally anticipated... but then the crusade had been established during Valerius Milvian's reign, and this small phrase had almost become a mantra of madness, so often was it read out in the Lords' Court.

Eventually however, Lord Morgan was surprised to find the topic of growing civil unrest breached by the King's proclamation. He took a quick glance across the wide table the six Lords and their liege were sat around; no-one else seemed to be offering any insight into the matter. Perhaps then, he might.

"My liege, I bid you let me speak." Lord Morgan cleared his throat, the other Lords peering curiously at him. Morgan was always a little quiet in these meetings.

"Please, do." King Flavius nodded. A small smile graced the young King's noble features; he placed a hand on his clean-shaven chin, leaning in curiously. Lord Morgan took a moment to take in his liege's appearance, his short blond hair and bright, youthful features. King Flavius was in his late twenties, but showed none of the scars and wrinkles befitting a king. But he was a fearsome beast when he had to be, and Lord Morgan knew that berating him would only serve to weaken his point.

"Thank you, my liege. I speak only to suggest..." Lord Morgan began, politely and cautiously, "...that the people are not going to be satiated by throwing criminals to the mob indefinitely. I understand the need for a scapegoat, but all we're doing is postponing their anger and sooner or later they will realise that we're changing nothing by doing so. If naught else, we'll soon run out of criminals. We cannot simply give them blood and pretend it will solve their problems."

"And what would you suggest, Morgan?" King Flavius said, leaning back on his throne; adopting a rather more thoughtful pose as he reclined. "The peasants complain over every little thing, to merely give into their demands would be financial suicide. Their asks for clean water alone would bankrupt us, for although our forefathers were apt at building aqueducts we simply do not have the resources available. The peasants must learn to fend for themselves... we've popularised good wells, cheap architecture and simple crafts. We keep them safe. What more are we to do, if giving them anything else would leave us unable to defend ourselves against the north?"

There was a small murmur as the Lords whispered this to one another for a few seconds. King Flavius frowned and called for silence, the Lords taking a moment to comply.

"My liege, if I may." Lord Corrigan said plainly, cutting across the lingering whispers. "I have an idea, though it may at first be difficult. In ancient days, when our ancestors were founding the mother-city, they permitted the peasantry representatives from among their body. Perhaps we might do the same; take one man of common blood from each province, perhaps chosen among the mayors of our larger holdings, and permit them to sit at this table."

"You would undermine your own rule, Corrigan?" one of the Lords shouted angrily; a portly, bearded man named Gallant. "If we elevate the peasants, what next? If they can speak for the King, what call do we have to be here at all?"

"I'm not saying we give up our positions, or that we give them any real power. Merely that their concerns are represented." Lord Corrigan retorted quickly, but was unable to continue any further as King Flavius once more raised his hand and called for silence.

"Though I appreciate your concern for the peasantry, Corrigan, what you propose is foolish and will only lead to more unrest. What you fail to understand is that the mob is not made up of dogs, loyal to their masters, but rather wild stallions; they must be saddled and broken before they are of any use. To release the paddock gate, as it were, would merely invite dissent."


Lord Morgan stretched as he walked out of the Lords' Chamber with his peers. It had been a long meeting; mostly taken up with economic talk and plans to generate more resources so that they might address needs for irrigation in some of the larger towns. Dull, tiring stuff. He yawned slightly, walking in the vague direction of his room; he would stay the night, then make for his lands in the morning. It was only three day journey, if he was prepared to travel ahead of his retinue.

"Morgan, a word?"

Lord Morgan turned around, just in time to see Corrigan's weighty hand pat his shoulder briskly. The elder noble squeezed tightly, his strong arm pulling Morgan off to one side into a small passage which ought to lead to the palace's servant-quarters. Morgan frowned as he was pulled away, Corrigan's firm grasp hurting slightly. Once they were out of sight and earshot, Corrigan looked Morgan in the eye and gave him a wry smile.

"What do you want? I'll need to sleep early if I'm to be back home soon."

"I never knew you had it in you, boy." Corrigan grinned, punching Morgan's shoulder. "I always thought you were soft, lad. But it seems you have a backbone after all."

"All I did was make a suggestion for a bit of temperance." Morgan said, rubbing his arm slightly.

"And sometimes, that's all it takes. But not today, not with this. The people are crying out for blood, but they're crying out for ours - they're not just dissatisfied, they don't see any hope. They're pining for days long gone when they could claim to be free people under their King." Corrigan frowned, leaning back on the wall behind him; idly tracing its intricate floral pattern with one finger. It was clear he knew it well.

"Careful, Corrigan. Idle talk costs lives, and if you keep going with that they'll have your head for treason." Morgan frowned. "We are subjects of his majesty. Find solace in that."

"Are we, Morgan?" Corrigan smiled. "You and I are descendant from Kings just as ancient as the line of his majesty. Your own ancestors fought Valerius Milvian to protect what they saw as just."

"Days long dead, Corrigan."

"Perhaps, perhaps not." Corrigan smiled weakly, straightening up slightly. Though he was in his sixties, Lord Corrigan was a man of impressive stature and athletic build. "But here is not the place. I believe that you want the best for the peasantry, Morgan. And you would do well to consider where your loyalties stand... if you're interested, I and a friend of mine are to meet tonight to discuss the matter at hand more before we depart for our holdings. We're to meet under the eastern aqueduct, in a pub nestled under one of the arches."

"And if I were to take this information to his majesty the King, Corrigan?"

"Then you would be rewarded and it will be my head next thrown to the mob... forgive me, not mob. 'Stallions'." Corrigan chuckled, patting Morgan on the head as he turned to walk away. Morgan watched him depart, slinking over to a nearby bench - the old wood creaking as he placed his weight upon it. He placed his hands in his head for a little while, taking the time to think; sitting there long enough for a maidservant to pass by and ask if he was feeling well. He shooed her away, saying that he was fine.


Morgan walked, cloak tightly gathered around his person as he made his way through the cool night air; eyes fixed on the immense stone structure rising out of the city in front of him. The aqueduct had been built about the same time as the palace and the keep; a few centuries before the Milvian Age, by the ancestors of the modern southern peoples. Great, tall, made from hewn stone; a marvel of the ingenuity of the ancestors and the strength of their slaves. It carried the city's water supply upon its great wide shoulders, ferrying it across the richer, older parts of the city in abundance... their own additions allowing for a serviceable coverage of the wider city.

He caught sight of the pub he had been told about; a small place, modest in its furnishings and easily blending into the other dark wooden buildings around it. A sign hung above its door depicting a Knight standing over some sort of mythical beast; a fitting image, perhaps one chosen deliberately. He approached, carefully opening the creaking door and slipping inside. Morgan squinted, trying to peer through the dim light into the room beyond and catch sight of anyone he might recognise; the place was poorly lit, the owner apparently unable to afford enough oil to light the whole place simultaneously. After a couple of minutes' searching, he rested on a group of hooded figures clustered around one table; Corrigan lifting his hood slightly so that Morgan would be able to spot him. The Lord nodded, coming and placing himself around the table; looking wearily at the other anonymous companions.

"We already know each other." Corrigan smiled slightly. "But for the sake of clarity, let's give our names anyway. I am Lord Corrigan Du Gautier, holder of the Thesis flood-lands."

"Lord Morgan Barrow, holder of the Haver Veil." Morgan said simply, looking to the other hooded figures tentatively. It was only a matter of seconds before they would reveal themselves to him.

"Lord Everett Halter, holder of the Winding Marsh." the first man said, taking down his hood. Lord Everett was a thin man who always looked a little underfed; though he was known for fast hands and a fast tongue. His hair was short, near-shaven, his face a little slim but not gaunt. He grinned, reclining in his chair; glad to have the façade of anonymity over and done with. He looked to the figure on his right.

"Lord Johannes Valhalla, holder of Versa Minor." the second man said, removing his hood. The Valhallas had always been known for their size, and Johannes was no exception; sitting a good half a foot above Corrigan, the next-tallest figure sitting at the table. It was said the Valhallas had some northern blood in them, though they would certainly never admit to it. Johannes gave Morgan a grim nod, drawing Morgan's eyes to the distinctive scar across Johannes' mouth. The man had always considered it a trophy.

"Thomas Norfolk, leader of the peasants' brigade in the Haver Veil." the final man said, removing his hood. This was a face Morgan did not recognise, though his name was familiar; the man was a little dirty, his face a little flabby, but he was known for being a good commander. Corrigan had given him broad control over the conscription process in his territory, leading to the creation of the 'Peasants' Brigade'; a loose network of commoners with basic militant training who could be summoned in case of emergency.

"Is this everyone?" Morgan said, motioning to the four men. "Or are there others involved in this?"

"Among the Lords, this is it; Tom is here because he's part of my retinue. But we have other support, scattered about the place." Corrigan nodded. He calmly turned and waved a barmaid over, handing her a few coins and asking for a round of strong ales.

"You've been planning for a while, then." Morgan sighed, looking at them. "I never knew you to give your trust easily, Corrigan."

"We came together out of convenience." Johannes grunted, looking sharply across the table at Corrigan. "Trust is a luxury we don't have; what we do have is a common goal, if not common rationale."

"And that goal would be?"

"Restoration." Corrigan smiled once more, waving his hand in the air grandly. "Restoration of the old days. It's nearly two-hundred years ago that our forefathers were either bribed or beaten until they agreed to Valerius Milvian's idea of a single united kingdom, and look where that's gotten us. Disease is rampant, we're growing beyond our cities faster than we can expand, and the war with the north is still going on. Think of it Morgan, two-hundred years since the people could call themselves free citizens under a free King. Two-hundred years of one despot making decisions on behalf of a multitude."

"Two-hundred years of our family names' subjugation." Johannes added bitterly.

"Surely you can't be thinking of a rebellion." Morgan said in hushed tones, eyes hurriedly darting between the assembled group as he leant in closer. "That's... mad. King Flavius will have our heads!"

"Listen, I don't know about what goes on in the 'Veil, but my lads are getting sick to death of pissing Milvian monarchs and their decrees." Everett said, his marsh-lander accent pushing its way into his speech. He took the ale offered to him by the returned barmaid, taking a deep swig of it before looking to Morgan and continuing. "He may well be an able administrator for the flatlands and the foothills, but the man knows nothing of how my lot live. Maybe in days gone by I could say that a united royalty was a good idea, but not under Flavius. Everything has to be ratified by the council with him, and spread over the whole damn Kingdom; no-where gets its need met, because everyone has to be on a level playing field."

"We spread resources equally specifically to stop the people feeling neglected. Everywhere gets the same treatment." Morgan said, his voice wavering slightly.

"You yourself said it, boy. What we're doing is not working; the people want someone to blame, and we're throwing them murderers as if it will solve something." Corrigan asserted firmly. "I say we give them the real cause of it all; a King who refuses to deal with their problems because it would threaten his own position to do so. You heard him, talking about the water problem; he refuses to act because it would cause problems with the barbarians. People are dying of disease so that he can stop a few yearly raids."

"Please, Corrigan; all of you. You're talking about starting a war, Flavius will not simply roll over and let you take your land from the Kingdom. And what of the people? You say you want to help, but thousands will die bloody deaths because of this! Please, see some sense!" Morgan said frantically, the others looking to him coldly.

Corrigan let out a long, drawn-out sigh. He looked Morgan in the eye.

"This is your choice, Morgan. You stand with us, and for the people, or you stand against us, and for the King." he said, the words cold and emotionless. It was a stark, uncompromising demand. "Which will it be?"

"I think I'll answer that on his Lordship's behalf." a voice said from the back of the room. Corrigan whirled his head around, seeing General Tarquinius standing at the entrance to the pub; royal guards either side of the stout man's shoulders. The General grinned maliciously, drawing his blade and pointing towards the gathered group. "You've done well, Morgan. You're a King's man, and for that you will be rewarded. Stand aside, and you will be unharmed."

Morgan looked to Corrigan, sighing momentarily before doing what he was told; a pained, apologetic look on his face as he backed away from the group and stood to one side; the various other patrons of the pub looking on to the scene, terrified at what they were witnessing.

"It seems I was wrong about you after all." Corrigan said, looking furiously at Morgan. "Perhaps you don't have a backbone, as I had originally thought. No matter."

"Surrender now and you will be granted mercy." General Tarquinius said, eyes gleaming. "Your lands and titles will be stripped and your family reduced to the status of a common man's, but your lives will be spared. What say you; is the King not generous?"

Corrigan, Everett and Johannes looked to one another for a brief moment. There was a silent unity among them. Then, Corrigan pulling Tom back slightly, Johannes stood. He grabbed the table. Then he flung it furiously across the room, the foursome using the loud distraction to run upstairs. General Tarquinius cursed them loudly, just managing to duck to one side before the large wooden thing struck him. He ordered his soldiers to follow them, taking a moment to breathe before doing the same. Morgan followed on behind, clinging desperately to some notion that he might be able to talk them down.

The group hastily moved into the public house's upper story, rampaging down the thin corridor as quickly as they could; guests opening their doors for a split-second only to slam shut and lock them a moment later. The Lords' party reached the end of the corridor, turning around quickly to face their pursuers. Corrigan and Johannes drew their blades, Everett searching around for something that may be of use.

"Well, I have an idea but you're not going to like it." he called to his comrades. Corrigan and Johannes replied in angry unison that anything would do. Everett nodded, coming to the window at the end of the hallway and fiddling with its lock for a few moments. Deciding that it would take too long, he put his boot to it and smashed his way through; making sure to get the idle shards of glass left around the window. He gave Tom a leg-up, pushing the man through the small opening and into the night air outside. He then shouted to his fellows that they should hurry up, before he leapt out and scurried into the night.

Morgan arrived up the stairs to find himself stuck behind the guards and General Tarquinius, all attempting to push through so that they might have at the two remaining Lords. The Lords were, unfortunately, resisting well; their swords much easier to fight with in the cramped hallway than the soldiers' long halberds. Blood was spilled across the walls and floor in abundance, bodies soon littering the hallway; the Lords easily able to hold out until the soldiers' morale broke and they turned to flee. General Tarquinius yelled at them furiously to get back and fight, but his cries fell on deaf ears. Soon, only he, Morgan and the two escaping Lords were left in the hallway.

Johannes patted Corrigan on the shoulder simply before he too leapt from the window and disappeared.

"Please, Corrigan, turn yourself in and end this before it turns into more of a bloodbath than it already is." Morgan implored the elder Lord, who frowned with disdain at his younger peer.

"It's already begun, boy! It began the moment you decided to turn us in. Don't try to follow us, or you'll regret it I promise you." Corrigan spat on the floor, but before turning to leave was assailed by General Tarquinius. The two locked blades for a moment, Tarquinius pushing furiously but unable to gain ground on his more skilled opponent. Corrigan thrust his knee upwards, winding Tarquinius for a moment. Corrigan followed up on this momentary advantage, kicking Tarquinius' sword from his hand and putting his own blade to the man's throat as he lay on the ground, breathing heavily.

"When they execute you..." Tarquinius panted, chest heaving, "...I shall take your holding and burn it to the ground. Not a man or woman left, do you hear me?"

"I never liked you." Corrigan muttered, before thrusting his blade forwards; not giving the man any more time to speak or curse.

It became quiet.

Morgan and Corrigan stood, staring wearily at one another, adrenaline pumping through both their bodies; though for different reasons. Corrigan wiped his blade on the General's fanciful tunic, before he sheathed it. No words needed to be exchanged between the two disparate figures; each knew where they stood, and where the other did. Morgan did not try to stop Corrigan as he clambered out of the window and dropped to the ground, fleeing into the black night beyond.

He sighed.

Corrigan had been right about one thing, if nothing else. The war had begun the moment Morgan turned them in.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

[Short Story] Black Crown

The King sat, reclined in a hide-covered chair as he idly thumbed through the pieces of increasingly tattered parchment sitting in a pile upon the wooden table in front of him. His eyes, weary from long hours reading by what little light the candles dotted around his tent, scanned each entry on the lengthy list; checking for any irregularities which needed to be addressed. Finding none, he yawned and placed the casualty list to one side; cursing the stubborn Lords sitting on the other side of that river.

Feeling lethargic, he stood up and stretched; his many royal adornments jingling softly as he moved, the only small sounds of an otherwise silent night. His back clicked a little; though he was a young man, King Valerius Milvian's reign had been marked by war more completely than any of his predecessors. But, he thought, it had not been for naught; though this damnable battle had been persisting for the better part of three days now, if he could make the final push all of his dreams would be realised. He had already won four of his fellow Kings to his cause; leaving only two to fight for their foolish national pride. If they could not be made to see sense, they would be made to comply. This was the only way to finally have peace.

"My Lord?"

King Valerius peered over his shoulder to the man standing at the entrance to his tent, tentatively poking his head through the folds of the thick velvet. He did not recognise the soldier, though judging by his leather armour and the colours upon his tabard he was one of the camp sentries.

"What news, soldier? Are they mounting an attack?" King Valerius said, beckoning the young fellow inside.

"No milord, nothing so dire. Rather, a small party of barbarians has approached the west gate. They say they wish you well in tomorrow's battle, and have a tribute to pay should you speak to their leader."

"Really?" King Valerius smiled slightly, though he was wary of becoming too immediately excited. The barbarians of the far north were a fickle, strange people whose ways were as illogical as they were exotic. He considered for a moment, before nodding. "Have their tribute brought; I shall speak to their envoy."

"Yes milord." the young soldier nodded, exiting the tent and rushing away; King Valerius listening to his pacy footsteps as he ran.

The King looked back to his chair somewhat longingly, for his patience with the day was becoming increasingly strained as it dragged on and he wished to sit down once more. But it would not do to sit while the northern envoy was present; the barbarians needed a consistent display of strength to keep them at bay, and any sign of weakness would be exploited, he was sure. He stretched for a few more moments, his tunic perhaps a little tighter that it had been at the beginning of this grand campaign; though whether that was due to fat or muscle, he was not sure. He had barely been a man when he took the throne, but now he was thirty-four years of age he had  indulged in both tremendous excess and tremendous hardship. The King was roused from his reflection by the loud clanking sound of an old chest being unceremoniously dropped to the floor. Looking up, he saw a woman.

The woman was short for a barbarian, which is to say the King's eyes were roughly level with her mouth. She was however clearly of the northern blood; her skin was pale, near-white in tone, and she bore a number of tribal markings under her left eye. Her lips were full and unusually red, her eyes lined in coal-black; if his wife was to believed, this was an effect achieved with dyes made from cow's blood and ash respectively. She was clad in thick brown bear furs, as well as a pair of thick leather trousers and boots. The King looked at her somewhat disdainfully; sending a woman was a cowardly act.

"I've already said I will meet with your envoy." the King said simply, waving his hand at her to leave. The woman frowned, looking the King in the eye sternly and refusing to move.

"You are meeting with the envoy." she said plainly. "And you would do well, my liege, to respect me as such."

The sarcasm with which she laced her words was concerning, to say the least. King Valerius quickly re-thought his position and decided that it would be best not to irritate her any further.

"Of course. Forgive me, I was simply not expecting..."

"Your ways are not ours. This is something our peoples are aware of; and a minor indiscretion ought not to change matters." the envoy said, again quite bluntly - her manner was far from any of the demure noble ladies King Valerius was used to dealing with. "I have come to give you a message and a tribute. The former must precede the latter."

"Very well; I bid you speak quickly, I have matters to which I must attend."

"Of course. Dear King, it is clear to the northern tribes that your victory in this war will be coming shortly. You have superior numbers and superior resources; any prolonged resistance is bound to fail. So in the effort to bring good relations between our two peoples, we send you this trinket."

The envoy bowed slightly, just enough for their eyes to be level for a moment, before she turned and unlocked the chest behind her. She carefully pulled out what King Valerius at first thought to be some sort of ugly statue - but which he realised moments later was a type of circlet. It was black, crudely forged and rather plain - made from rugged iron, not even as refined as the buckles upon the envoy's own clothing. He frowned at it for a few seconds, before taking it in hand. He supposed it did not matter what the thing looked like, so long as its intentions were worthwhile.

"Thank you, this is most kind. A beautiful thing, fit for my..." King Valerius began, but he was quickly cut across by a coarse laugh from the barbarian envoy.

"Do not pretend it is not a foul-looking thing, dear King. Its value lies in its meaning... it is a black crown. Among the tribes of the north, it signifies authority and loyalty. Whoever wears a black crown shows that they are strong enough to serve, and humble enough to do so willingly. They are blessed by the Holy Flame; it will bring you fortune."

So, that was it - a religious bit of shoddy metalwork. He supposed it would do; the barbarians of the north had long been a thorn in the side of the seven kingdoms, and if he could end their raiding it would at least make the transition to his rule easier.

"I thank you. I shall wear it with honour." King Valerius nodded. The envoy peered at him for a moment, as if testing his sincerity, before she nodded and exited his tent. The king waited for a soldier to tell him the barbarians had left, before he cast the ugly crown to his bed and let it sit there - attending to his papers for a while longer before finally conceding that he ought to sleep.


King Valerius muttered something foul as one of his attendants nicked him on the chin with the heavy iron plate he was attempting to strap to the King's shoulder. He had to grin and bear it though; better to receive a few small cuts getting into his armour rather than lose something important on the field. It only took a few minutes until he was armoured and ready to go - the King checking to see that his joints moved smoothly. Satisfied, he dismissed his attendants. As they left, his eyes fell once more onto the ugly black crown. He had placed it on the desk when he'd retired for the night, but many times he'd awoken only to find himself staring at the thing. He didn't like it, it gave him an uneasy feeling; as if he was being watched by a creature far greater than himself. It struck him that he had never bothered to try it for size.

He picked it up carefully, feeling its weight in his hand - it was a little lighter than he had expected, but then again on closer inspection it was also a little thinner than he had initially thought. He raised it above his head and placed it gently over the iron ringmail hood he was wearing; pleasantly surprised to find that it fit rather snugly and kept the ringmail from slipping down. He shrugged, figuring that another layer of iron between ones skull and the enemy was never a bad thing, and so exited his tent.

The camp was large, though smaller than it had been in previous days - many tents had been taken down as their occupants began to pile up in a heap outside the perimeter. It was full of movement and life, men rushing to make final preparations before the day's battle. He looked to the sky; it was probably the second hour from dawn, and his enemies were unlikely to move before the third. King Valerius then turned his attention to the camp on the other side of the wide river in front of them. It was also very large, though by his estimation had around a third of the forces he did. It sat around a hundred yards or so from the river bank, as did King Valerius' own camp. The two armies separated by a vast river and a large stone bridge in front of them.

"Fools." he muttered grimly as one of his subordinate Lords came and stood beside him. "Surely they know their plight is hopeless. They lose more men each day, yet they refuse to surrender or run - doing battle with them is less like conquest and more like butchery."

"They don't intend to win, milord." the Lord smiled weakly, peering at the thin wisps of smoke coming from the camp's fire. "They're hoping to soften us up, so that when we inevitably make them martyrs the people will be able to continue things from there."

"How depressing." King Valerius sighed. "They die for nothing."

"I wouldn't underestimate them, milord. Besides - it will all be over soon. The men plan to march within the hour."

"We're not waiting for them to attack?"

"We've waited for them to attack three days in a row now. They're weak, they're tired; if we keep them that way, we ought to have victory today."

"Excellent, excellent." King Valerius said, his grim frown turning to a sly smile. He patted his loyal servant on the shoulder boisterously, motioning with his other hand to the sky. "Grab your armour and sound the men, Grant - today is a glorious day for fighting!"

The Lord nodded, turned and left; barking orders as he walked, the soldiers quickly grabbing whatever they needed from their belongings and lining up in formation. It was a matter of minutes before the well-drilled army, around four-thousand strong, had assembled themselves and were ready to act upon any order given them. King Valerius looked to his impressive ranks of archers, raising his hand.

The archers knocked their arrows, waiting for his signal. As King Valerius dropped his hand, the archers lifted their bows to the sky and began to rythmically fill the air with the thousand-strong sound of wood whistling through the air as it flew towards the camp on the other side of the river. They began to hear shouts and screams as their enemies scrambled to deal with this unexpected attack; a few arrows being returned, but few finding their mark. It was clear they had not been prepared, and were simply trying to find whatever they could to defend themselves.

A few seconds later, a flood of soldiers came from the fortified entrance to the enemy camp; charging over the grassy space and desperately attempting to heed the panicked orders of their generals. King Valerius whistled for the attention of his own soldiers, before ordering them on; the immense army rushing from their own gates to meet their foes on the bridge. There was a mounting roar as the two bodies charged towards one another, which fell to deathly silence the split-second before they clashed. King Valerius drew his own blade and grabbed a large wooden shield from nearby, beginning to run towards the mass of flailing iron gathering on the bridge.

It was not long before the casualties began to pile up; cleaved bodies being thrown over the side of the bridge by their own allies lest they fall to the floor and cause someone to trip. King Valerius' archers did not cease their iron rain either, forcing more and more soldiers from the camp before they were ready; giving King Valerius' troops precious extra seconds before their enemies were able to fight. Slowly but surely, and at great cost, the King's troops pushed the enemy back from the bridge onto the grassy plain just behind it; allowing the men far more room to manoeuvre, and therefore far less chance of being struck down unexpectedly by one's allies in the dense mêlée. King Valerius moved in closer, blood from his blade splashing across his face as he whirled it around.

All was going well, until the King found himself knocked to the ground by a massive weight crashing into his right side. He rolled on the floor, scrambling away from the spot where he'd been knocked only moments before an axe thudded into the ground. His assailant pulled his weapon from the ground, rounding on King Valerius once more; managing to grab hold of his armour for just long enough to puncture the King's shoulder-plate. Thankfully, King Valerius was only nicked by the blow and managed to struggle free before he was hurt any further. He managed to get to his feet and catch his bearings; seeing a familiar face standing in front of him.

The bright blue eyes looking back at him furiously were ones he recognised, belonging in fact to King Marion of Versa Minor; one of the only Kings left to resist Valerius' grand conquest. Valerius readied his shield just in time for Marion's axe to thud into it firmly, giving him a moment to catch his breath as Marion struggled to remove it from the wood.

"I never picked you for a soldier, Valerius! I always thought you were more content to sit back and let others do your dirty work for you!" Marion exclaimed, ducking out of the way of Valerius' fierce counter-blow. "It seems you've grown a backbone since I last saw you, boy!"

"You could have kept your land, old man, if only you would have listened to some sense; the old days are over. This will be the last battle I fight, mark my words; it is a shame that you will not be there to enjoy the new age."

"And what of the barbarians? You assume that they will simply leave you be, now that you have created your glorious new age? You are a bigger threat to them than ever before."

Valerius thrust his blade forwards, the iron finding its mark on Marion's breastplate but skipping off to one side due to the curvature of the plate. It made little more than a scratch on the elder man's torso, Valerius' precarious position allowing Marion to plant his boot firmly on Valerius' own chest. Valerius lost his balance once more, toppling down to the riverbank and dropping his shield to one side. Marion ran over, quickly and repeatedly swinging his axe at Valerius' head; Valerius just about managing to avoid each blow by turning one way and the other. He brought his blade in front of him to block another fierce stroke, the two metal pieces locking together momentarily.

"You deprive the people of their hope and their identity, Valerius; if they do not have their homeland, what do they have? Are you so caught up in noble politics that you take away a peasant's only consolation?"

"They have their spirits, they have their state; of what import is the name of the place or who rules it to them?" Valerius shouted, his sword nearly being tugged from his hands as Marion pulled at it with the hook-like backside of his axehead. He tightened his grip, managing to bring his blade around and strike at Marion's side; the iron not managing to cut the thick armour he wore, but still weighty enough to wind him momentarily.

Marion seemed relatively un-phased by this however, recovering quickly and not permitting Valerius to stand; bringing his axe around for another strike. This one was on target, Valerius not reacting quick enough to avoid it; the iron falling down about his forehead. Valerius' vision was blurred as he attempted to recover from the heavy blow. He was not sure if he had been cut; injuries were often obscured by the adrenaline of the moment. He did notice his window however, and so thrust his blade upwards; finding its mark in the thinner armour around Marion's right armpit. Marion reeled backwards, dropping his axe and clutching his arm; hot blood pouring from the fresh wound.

Valerius' head still pounding, he stood up and bore Marion to the ground; taking once last look at the man's grizzled face before he thrust his blade down once more.


King Valerius sat on the side of the bridge, a medic tending to his wounds; bodies littered around him and wounded soldiers being carefully put on stretchers and carried back to the camp by their healthy comrades. He flinched slightly as the physician applied some unpleasant-smelling ointment to his head and shoulder, but he did not move his eyes in the slightest; keeping them fixated on the object in his hands.

The black crown was severed at its crest, a thin cut marking the place where King Marion's axehead had split the metal. It had saved his life, he was now realising; provided just enough extra covering to prevent the axe from penetrating his head. As it stood, he has received a nasty cut; but his ringmail hood and the crown had stopped the blow from reaching anything vital. Provided the wound was cleaned, he was told he would recover swiftly.

The medic finally finishing his work, Marion was permitted to stand once more. He did so, waving his servant away and looking over the battlefield; men lying dead on the field in droves, as well as on the bridge he found himself on. It was a hot afternoon and flies had begun to gather, but King Valerius didn't mind. It was finally over; both Kings had been reported dead, and beyond the suppression of their immediate allies and family there was naught stopping him from creating his new state.

King Valerius smiled, placing the black crown back on his head. This year was the first of a new era; the Milvian age, he would call it, in honour of his family name. He would rule a single, unified kingdom. A kingdom marked not by war, but by peace. This was his dream, and he could make it his reality.

Little did he know which course history would take.