Blood on the snow.
Chapter 2 of the Tale of Two Kings.
Gwenhierblade made quick work of the undead woman. With one swift stroke the Queen of Alestria severed the Immortal’s head from her shoulders. Black blood sprayed from the wound and showered the pure white of the snow in it’s darkened crimson. She risked a quick look around to check on her forces and thanked god that none had fallen to the undead.
A small force of Alestrian knights fought tooth and nail against the blighters, as always her bodyguard Elswin was by her side and like her he was covered in blood. Elven arrows dropped a few more blighters ahead as dwarven bullets and curses sang a moment later while the Orcs gleefully chopped away.
The one good thing winter brought was that the undead were a lot slower and easier to handle. A former soldier clawed at her as it gurgled but it was so slow she could’ve walked three times around it before it could even move. She quickly ended it’s suffering, another countrymen she couldn’t save but at least send his soul to heaven.
A large thud shook the ground. As she turned to see the source the ground shook once more. A shower of snow came down along with bits of corpses and ground as Fron the giant withdrew his large club from the ground. The giant had taken his charge as protector of Pitted valley seriously and charged out to face the undead mob that headed towards the city before Morganna had time to properly organise a warband to secure the road for the incoming envoys from north of her kingdom. Envoys who no doubt were fighting for their lives at this very moment.
“RALLY!” the Queen cried." Baron De Schacht is across this hill!"
“My Queen!” Elswin placed his hand on her shoulder." We got a problem."
“We don’t have time, Elswin!” she replied." What is it?!“
Her bodyguard sighed.” The troops are fighting again."
“Oi, point ears!” a dwarf shoved an elven archer." You took my kill!“
The elf smirked as she pulled her arrow from the corpse.” Should’ve been faster then."
“In my culture, kill stealing is dishonourable.” an orc warrior replied as he pulled his axe from the frigid zombie." Then again, elves have no honour.“
More rangers frowned.” Why do you know of honour, greenskin?!"
“More than you!” The dwarf blunderbuss replied." At least they didn’t come halfway through the war like some pointy eared tree hugging cowards!“
The elves drew their bows and knives as the orcs and dwarves took up their weapons.
“ENOUGH!” Morganna marched through the snow.” Am I leading a warband or am I leading a kindergarten?!"
The warriors looked away ashamed.
“Apologies, your highness…” one of the dwarves muttered in his beard.
“We meant no disrespect.” one of the elven archers bowed.
Morganna sighed, she had no time for this." Chief Turok!" she pointed to one of the Orcs with a large bloodied mace." Help Fron clear out the rest of these blighters with the dwarves and then turn back to Pitted Valley! Alleria!" she pointed to one of the elves." You will follow me.“
Turok spoke up.” My queen, we can go with you!“
She had no time to explain that the orcs and dwarves were to slow to reach the envoy in time. That they were excellent fighters, loyal warriors who marched with her since Orangecraig months ago and she felt great pride at fighting alongside them. But if this peace treaty had any chance of succeeding it was worth sacrificing hurt feelings over it.
“Do as I command!” She got on the horse Elswin fetched for her.” You have your orders, MOVE!"
She did not look back as her household knights and elven allies ran across the snow field hillock but she felt the glare of disappointed warriors at her back.
When she reached across the hillock and charged over it, she saw a large convoy surrounded by more undead. They were easy to handle yes but the sheer number of them was nearly to much for it’ escort.
De Schacht’s banner was waving in the cold wind, a white bear on a gray field, standing fast as his armoured men were fighting a bitter cold battle. Goblin archers were on top of the caravan coaches as arrows flew into the undead targets with semi-accurate skill.
For a moment Morganna admired the goblin’s courage…but soon saw a big chest of coins in the middle of the undead horde. It seemed the paymaster had thrown the goblin’s pay in the dead sea so the goblins were forced to fight for their masters. In her mind’s eye she heard Uncle Thror laughing.
She drew Gwenhierblade from her scabbard and held out the tip towards the undead horde and cried out a incoherent battle cry.
“FOR ALESTRIA!” Elswin translated for her." FOR THE QUEEN!"
The battle was forceful and brief. Human steel and horse hooves cleaved and stomped the undead apart. A few men died but thankfully not to many.
Morganna cleaned her sword as the largest carriage opened it’s door, revealing its occupant.
A well dressed bald man covered in rabbit fur and purple attire stepped out, followed by several hangers on. His bodyguard, who had not a single speck of blood on him, his mistress, his jester and several other lordly types.
“Queen Morganna!” The man smiled forcefully." I thank you for your assistance."
“Baron De Schacht.” she returned the smile." It has been a long time."
“Oh yes, ten years ago I believe at a gala. Just before you were shipped off to Orangecraig. Forced to live with the little bearded folk.” His mistress chuckled as his jester sang a crude phrase.
"Seven dwarves and a young princess, the stories say they were digging for gold but we all know what else they do leaves a mess…"
Elswin frowned." It is custom for a lord to bow for her Queen."
“Not my Queen.” De Schacht replied." I told you, my city of Brugen and the Vlaanders province are now independent. If you wish to be friendly with us it will have to be done with a proper treaty.“
Morganna gave Elswin a look before her bodyguard could reply. She regained her composure.” Exactly, my lord. So let us move before more Immortals appear. My knights and elven friends might not be so quick next time…" She arranged her horse." We shall be your escort to Pitted Valley, quickly now before the sun sets."
She did not look back as she knew the baron was fuming. With that the Queen led the escort towards the city.
“Excellent diplomacy, my queen.” Elswin said with mirth. Morganna did not reply but returned a wicked grin as well.
The escort rode back to the fortified city as the elves scouted the forests around it first before they entered the city proper. Morganna rode next to the carriage that held the baron as the banners of the Alestrian Unicorn and the Brugen Bear waved side by side by their bearers.
One of her knights spotted someone in the crowd and turned to his Queen. She knew who Ser Trevor saw and gave a nod. The knight smiled and rode off. A moment later as the escort passed by she saw Ser Trevor kissing his husband, a baker she recalled from an earlier conversation, full on the lips like no-one was watching. Newlyweds, she thought with a smile as the escort drove on.
Armed guards saluted the queen as she passed. The people cheered at the return of their men. Most were humans from all walks of life but the odd dwarf and orc were there as well.
“The people love their Queen.” Baron De Schacht said." You have them well in your hand.“
She waved at the crowd.” We’ve been hell together these past two hundred days, they deserve some merriment.“
The baron chuckled.” Agreed. It is the same in Brugen and the other cities in Vlaanders when I enter."
“How so?” Morganna already regretted asking.
“Because I saved them. It was the Brugen Bear that held off the undead while the Unicorn was mauled to death in Queenspark. While you were busy rallying your…non-human friends, I had to rely on my own devices to protect my people.”
She heard of those devices. Baron De Schacht used criminals who were on his payroll to secure the borders and smugglers to get food to the cities. He used goblin mercenaries as canon fodder to soften the undead before his knights could smash the weakened horde before the goblins could reanimate.
He sacrificed villages of two hundred people so three more villages would be save.
He was a monster driven by cold calculus and ambition…and a real threat to her reign.
The people of Vlaanders thought of him as a hero and saw him aid them in their time of need. After the Blight was defeated, his forces would be stronger than Morgana’s. Giving a man like the baron independence was folly but there was no real choice.
Best case was to draw the baron into the blight, appease him with some offerings…and wait for a weakness.
“I know the feeling.” the Queen replied." Were it not for Uncle Thror and my friends we would still be in Orangecraig, waiting to be slaughtered. To have at least the southern capitol back…fills me with hope.“
He spat.” Hope does not warm fires or feed your belly. Coin does and making the right choices. You’ve done that so far, my Queen. But there will be a time you’ll have to make a wrong choice to do something right.“
She frowned.” With all due respect baron, for a man who nearly died you come across as very patronizing. Were I to make a wrong choice you could’ve been dead.“
The baron chuckled.” Perhaps you should’ve made that choice."
This man confused and sickened her. He was the complete opposite she was. And she was forced to call him friend. He withdrew from the conversation as the escort made their way through the streets of Pitted valley.
When they reached the Townhall, Marshall Raynor was there waiting for them.
“Welcome back, your majesty.” he bowed." I heard the hunt went well?“
She laughed.” You make it sound like we were out hunting foxes!" Elswin helped her from her horse as stable boys and girls helped her knights from their war horses.
“Immortals hungering for flesh, foxes…same thing.” Raynor shrugged. His eyes turned to the carriages as the baron and his entourage climbed out, Brugen men and goblins skittering about." I retract my statement…it seems you were out hunting boars…"
“Careful, Marhshall…” Elswin said." His jester hears everything.“
Raynor sighed.” Fantastic…" He motioned her to follow." Your troops made it back, the people are cheering for Fron. They’ve taken to the big lug."
“He was good in that fight, I have to admit.” Elswin added.
Morganna nodded." Very good, anything else?"
“There have been some fights in taverns lately…” Raynor opened the doors for them." Mostly dwarves and orcs fighting elves. They believe the elves aren’t pulling their weight enough with the grain from Falcon’s Hold." He held up his hand." And don’t get me started on the Children of Light. If they didn’t help out with the soup kitchens we would’ve had a bloodbath by now.“
The Queen turned to the Marshall.” Are you saying there isn’t enough grain?" She heard otherwise from Ser Trevor. His husband, who was one of the few bakers in the city, claimed elven grain was different from normal grain and less was needed to make bread.
“Prince Ithalen assured me, alongside calling me a short lived peasant among other things, that there is enough grain for the whole of winter.” Raynor replied." I tend to believe him and I’ll have words with the troops about our relations with the fay folk of Falcon’s Hold."
“Very good, Marshall.” Morganna rested her eyes on the baron as he helped his mistress dismount from the carriage." The last thing we need is more enemies…"
The baron behaved very well all things considered. He did not complain about the state of the Townhall or the size of his room. He complimented the chefs for their cooking and even joined in with prayers. The only slip up he made was that before the prayer to thank god for the meal he said he only worshipped one god and not the spirits like the elves did. He did so as his eyes lingered on Prince Ithalen. Thankfully the Prince did not hear or was not baited by the baron’s taunts. She also noticed Elswin’s attentions were elsewhere during the meal. He received extra roasted potatoes from one of the serving girls as she gave him a wink. The blush on his cheek was adorable. She didn’t mention anything and had small talk with General Redbeard of Coolcraig in Sanctuary.
“We managed to secure a holdout near Queenspark.” He belched before dabbing his bright crimson beard on his lips. She was used to dwarf dining from her years in Orangecraig and did not raise her brow like Ser Trevor did." Our gnome kin got a outpost in the forest nearby, cleared out the blighters there, and the thaig we’re hiding in has been completely reclaimed by the children of the mountain. Some really good fighting in the tunnels there, reminded me when I fought alongside your uncle when we reclaimed Orangecraig. Dwarven axe and hammer turning the blighters to grey mush!" He gave a hearty chuckle.
“That is good news.” Morganna tore some bread and dipped it in her soup." What has my uncle planned?"
“So far? Nothing.” Redbeard gulped some ale." Winter is shite for warfare. Our artillery will get stuck in the snow and our powder will get wet. Us dwarves can handle the cold but if you want to reclaim your city, your men will die in droves in the snowy peaks before we get down." the dwarf picked up a chicken drumstick and jammed it in his mouth before proceeding to speak with his mouth full. “We hold up for now, reinforce the thaig via our tunnel network and come spring we shell the shite out of the hordes outside of your home.”
“If we’re lucky, we might have men from Vlaanders to join in with the assault.” Morganna drank her soup. The last thing she wanted was have the baron help her reclaiming her ancestral home. But like always as with Prince Ithalen, she had no real choice.
After the baron announced he would retire and that the negotiations could continue tomorrow if the Queen wished it. While his mistress moaned and sighed and complained as she clung to his arm, he handed coins to the servants and thanked them for their service.
“Slimy as a toad that one…” Ithalen snorted." And twice as large.“
Morganna had to stop herself from agreeing with the elven prince. A thought of glass houses and rocks crossed her mind.” He is an ally in this war, Prince Ithalen. We need as many as we can if we want the Blight to be driven out of Iron Crown."
“Some allies are not worth having.” He picked out a book from the shelf. The prince had asked for an meeting alone with her at the library. For a moment she feared it would be another secret tryst but so far the conversation had been mostly about the baron.
His blue eyes darted over the contents of the book." The Legend of the White Bear of Brugen…"
“You are reading about the baron’s ancestry?” Morganna asked.
“My mentor always taught me to know my allies as well as my enemies for you don’t know when one might become another.” He gave a confident grin before he read some more." It says here his ancestor, Baron Roderik De Schacht eloped with a princess from Queen’s Maul without her father’s consent. On the way to Vlaanders they were beset by a large white bear that terrorized the province, not even Alestrian knights nor hired elven rangers could slay the beast." He took Morganna aside." Again you can see this is a legend." This made Morganna smirk as well as the elf continued." Roderik charged at the bear with his lance and pierced it’s heart against a tree. This impressed the people so much they called him ‘Roderik the Iron Arm’ and he took the white bear as his sigil. Bandit lords and Troll chieftains feared Roderik as his iron arm would smash every army to opposed Vlaanders.“
Morganna nodded.” The De Schachts were good friends to the crowd as well, during the Second Troll war they held the north side of the kingdom long enough against Gorvar the Dragon Riders orc army that my ancestors were able to rally the rest of Alestria and drive them back to the sea."
Ithalen nodded and closed the book." It’s a shame a line has fallen so far into villainy."
" And yet he is our only chance to bring peace back to Iron Crown." the Queen replied.
The elven prince placed the book back." What do you offer him in this treaty?"
“Besides independence?” he nodded." We need to discuss that. What’s on the table so far is an increase of land and a alliance in blood.“
Ithalen’s face went pale.” You don’t plan to marry that boar, are you?!"
“Of course not!” Morganna snapped. That came out to fierce she reprimanded herself." Of course not." she restored herself." But I did offer my brother’s hand to the baron’s daughter."
“Oh…” Ithalen looked away." How does your brother feel about that?"
“I don’t know. The message has not reached Orangecraig yet.” Morganna folded her arms and looked upon the collection of books. Filled with stories, legends, accounts of history, recipes of alchemy. All that knowledge." I am sure he will hate me for it. I am doing the exact same thing my parents did to us…as their parents did to them.“
Ithalen went through his smooth, long, white hair with his immaculate fingers.” We are all slaves to our family’s wishes…not all can be like Prince Halmadir who chose love over duty and was rewarded with heartbreak."
The two stood in silence for a moment. Snow ticked against the glass of the library, the night as black as tar outside. The faint sound of the wind howling could be heart despite the crackling of the fire place.
“You seemed very distraught at the thought of me marrying the baron.” she said eventually.
“Well…you deserve better is all.” the prince looked away as he replied.
She cocked her head to the side, she swore she saw the prince blushing as he said it." Oh…who do I deserve then?" She placed her hand on his shoulder and made him turn.
He looked very different now. The man who blackmailed her into a affair seemed afraid.
“You deserve a man who…treats you with respect.” he said." Who loves you for who you are." She could not believe it, he had actually fallen in love with her. A thought came to her, she saw a chance to use this weakness. Her right hand went to his chest where his heart was while the other went around his waist.
"And do you love me, Prince Ithalen?"
She felt him tremble in her arms, a pale skin with flushed cheeks.
“Y-yes.” he managed to utter.
He kissed her deeply, all inhibitions gone. Raw passion took over both. Both went to a quiet corner of the library where none could see. This was different from previous times. Earlier he was in charge, he was the one who made the demands. Now the tables had turned, she had him. Had his heart in her hands. Morganna kissed him once more." Show me how you plan to use that silver tongue of yours." She helped him undo her belt and lower her garments. She threw back her head and gave a sigh of pleasure as he knelt before her and showed her how he intended to use it.
There was nobody else but them in the kitchen in the late hour. Her cries filled the room as their warmth added to the fireplace next to them. Terrence Elswin’s bloodied armour was strewn across the floor before the bear rug as were her apron and chef’s attire. It had started a month ago, with shy looks and smiles. During a meal Terrence admitted he loved the roast potatoes to one of the servants. And for every meal afterward he always received extra potatoes and sometimes even seconds. After some urging from Trevor, Terrence went to meet the chef. Sarina was of mixed descent, her father was a Alundrian sailor but her mother was from Arabiana. Her hair was as black as night and it had a strange shape to when she took off her hat, a hairstyle consisting of a mass of very tight curls that stick out all round the head. He did not know why an exotic woman like her was in a backwater Alundrian city like Pitted Valley but he thanked God for her being here. When his duties allowed it he went on walks with her, enjoyed watching the puppet shows and plays that she liked. It only became physical after a close call with a Dread Lord that nearly cleaved him in two weeks prior. Were it not for a dwarven bullet that pierced through the undead lord’ skull, he would no longer be among the living. He had told Sarina he cared for her but like the gardener always told him, deeds say more than words. That was the first time they made love and since then he was addicted to her and vice versa.
Their lovemaking reached a crescendo before she rolled off him, he caught his breath and held his lover close as she rested her head on his chest.
“That is one way to thank me for the roasties.” she said in between breaths. He gave a laugh before kissing her forehead.
They lay there for a moment, enjoying the heat they shared and the heat of the fireplace.
“Another close call today?” she rubbed his stomach with her tanned hands.
“Aye.” he replied." Had to save this baron from the Blight."
“The bald man?” she raised her brow." He seems very unpleasant."
“He is.” he agreed." He’s a criminal, a murderer…but the Queen says we need him to help reclaim Queenspark and the rest of the province."
“By working together with an evil man?” She shook her head." My mother had a saying from the homeland. When you have to choose between two evils, pick neither."
“Your mother seems like a very wise woman.” Terrence smiled." Wiser than mine."
“Did they not raise you?“
He shook his head.” No…
She raised her head, her almond eyes resting on his, a small smile on her lips.” Then who?"
"…my gardener did."
She gave a laugh.
A loud cry shook both from their comfort. His training took over, he quickly put on some trousers and picked up his blade." Stay here!" he bade her as she dressed and rushed outside.
He was met upon a screaming servant girl who pointed in front. A bloodied corpse was leaning against the wall, a elven man with his ears cut off…and pierced above him with bloody lettering above him.
ALL ELF BLOODS WILL DIE.