February 6th - Cagil
Brighda sat in the gloom of her bivouac studying the letter. It had arrived as her men were pitching their tents by the river, carried by a messenger from far-off Alebad, and as she took it from his hand and slipped him a couple of silver coins for his trouble she recognised her sister's seal.
Months had passed since Aoifa set off for the colonies and not a word had been heard of her, unlike Moira who sent a constant stream of reports on the war in Fontan: a war in which she had already covered herself in considerable glory. Admittedly Aoifa had never really taken to letters, but surely they had scribes even in that barbarous continent?
I trust the Empire's glory is as untarnished as my memories. Have you heard from Moira? If so then please pass on my best wishes and ask her to contact me.
I have settled in Alebad, one of the capitals of the Southern Theocratic Alliance, and established a small estate on our mother's behalf. This is a wealthy and fertile land but there is much war here. I was recently wounded in a major battle on our northern marches with the realm of Lukon, but I seem to have recovered with indecent haste and am now commanding a fine company of light infantry. I hope we will soon be back on the offensive, but that is in the hands of our generals.
However that is not the reason I am writing. Rather I thought you might wish to hear news of young Cathal, who it seems has followed me to this distant land. I doubt he did so with your knowledge or that of our mother, impetuous lad. Anyway, I heard reports that he had been captured in battle against the realm of Oritolon, but as of yet no further word has come my way. When I catch up with the young pup I'll be certain to remind him of his duty to the Empire and ship him back home on the first available ship.
So that was where young Cathal had got himself to. Her mother had lost many nights' sleep over the impulsive lad, and expended considerable gold in making enquiries throughout Atamara. Well at least once Aoifa caught up with him he'd be in good hands. Brigdha was almost tempted to make the journey herself and collect the young rascal, but someone had to stay at home and look after the family's interests...
February 10th - Trassing
Brigdha stood before the flap of her tent, chewing on a strip of venison jerky from her trail rations. The Black Swans were making good time on their march to Nida and the men were in high spirits, using their spare hours to catch some fresh game and show off their incredible skill with the longbow.
When she'd first turned her mind to policing she'd worried that the sombre rangers would find the transition difficult, but they seemed to be developing a taste for the work. Perhaps it was the hunt-like nature of detection, allowing them to put their initiative and training to good use on a novel battlefield, or maybe it was the trust that the people of both Calis and Cagil had place in them? Their black livery was already becoming well known amongst the criminal element and she hoped it would one day strike a deep fear in the hearts of those who preyed on the peaceful citizens of the Empire she loved.
Of course as a detachment of the Army of Ered Luin they would still be expected to fight the twin evils of monsters and undead as the necessity arose, and Brigdha enjoyed varying their patrol routes to suit this duty, but she had come to realise that her heart lay with the Empire and that enforcing its laws was a higher calling than any she had previously aspired to. Her sisters would doubtless find that amusing, as the family was not known for its peaceful or law-abiding ways.
"My Lady," sergeant Berek saluted smartly and came to attention.
"At ease sergeant," Brigdha shot him a warm, easy smile. She was the consummate professional officer.
"The first of the hunting parties has returned Ma'am. They say the game around here is pretty scarce, so it looks like we've hare pottage for dinner again."
"Again? I know hares are a good test of the lads' aim Berek, but do you think you could encourage them to catch something else for a change? Maybe something with wings? Or a wild pig? Or a juicy young buck?"
"I have tried Ma'am. Believe me, I really have. But you know what they're like. After all, they're all chosen men," and the look of exasperation caused Brigdha to stifle a snigger. She liked the men to think she was stern, even though there wasn't a one of them she wouldn't gladly risk her life for. All of them had been serving the Dubhaine family since she was a young child and she knew at least half of them were in some way related to her, although unravelling the tangled web of the clan's familial relations was a task that would tax the most dedicated genealogist.
"Well then hare pottage it is. Although I'm half tempted to stick to my trail rations just for the variety. Still, tomorrow we'll be in Nida and I don't doubt the banquet to celebrate Duke Tsubasa's inauguration will more than make up for tonight's culinary shortcomings."
"Which reminds me Ma'am. Will you be wanting the men to help with policing the celebrations?"
"No. I think they've worked hard enough this last couple of weeks that they deserve to blow off steam for a day or two. I will be needing volunteers for an honour guard though, and have them all get their best livery in order just in case anything unexpected crops up. Dismissed."
"Very good Ma'am."
And that just left the question of what she would be wearing to the celebrations. She slipped inside her tent and unlocked the trunk which her squire Sarai had man-handled from the baggage cart. Inside were the few feminine treasures that accompanied her on patrol, although usually she lacked the excuse to wear them.
But there within the chest was the most sumptuous felt gown, green like emeralds and with an under-kirtle of silver samite. As she looked at the garments she imagined herself an elegant lady of the court, her every whim satisfied by eager suitors keen to win her heart. The spell lasted a brief moment and she was once again Dame Brigdha, captain of rangers. How she wished at times that she could be a little more like her peers, but colour and frivolity came so hard...
February 10th - Nida
Brigdha felt uncomfortable in the elegant gown. It pulled strangely as she moved, the weight of the skirt train trailing behind as she turned to and fro before the full-length mirror.
The Black Swans had arrived in Nida late in the afternoon, their baggage carts jostling for space with the many merchant wagons blocking every thoroughfare. Even the side alleys were packed with throngs of freeman and soldiers spilling from the city's many taverns. Half the armed might of the Empire was on display, their freshly pressed livery and burnished weapons a testament to the glory of Cagil. The Imperial flag flew from every tower and strings of bunting criss-crossed the roof-line in cheerful shades of red and gold, carrying glittering lanterns and pennants set with the arms of all the nobles houses of the Empire. Viscount Haine had surpassed himself.
The company worked their way through the backstreets to The Gryphon's Triumph, an inn owned by Sergeant Berek's uncle Fergal. He'd turned away a family of lesser nobility from Skalk to make room for the company, and Brigdha watched with some amusement as the harassed inn-keeper explained that the entire east wing had been requisitioned for a detachment of the Army of Ered Luin.
"The army!" the well-appointed magistrate looked askance, "And what care I for the sleeping arrangement of a gang of brutish thugs my good man! I paid you a handsome deposit on those apartments and I will have them."
"I have already returned your deposit sir, now kindly leave my premises before I call the constabulary."
"Do you know who I am you blaggard?" there was a purple hue to the man's cheeks midway betwixt gout and apoplexy.
"Excuse me," Brigdha swept through the tavern door as if she owned the place, flanked by two of her rangers, "but is there some trouble inn-keeper?"
The portly magistrate turned as if to unleash a torrent of abuse, but stopped in his tracks at sight of the young noblewoman, "I... I-wh-bu-I..."
"I apologise your honour if the needs of the Imperial Army have inconvenienced you, but as an officer of the law I am sure you appreciate that an event such as Duke Kurosaki's inauguration requires the highest security the Empire can offer."
"I... bu-ye-bu-yes My Lady. Of course!" the man spluttered, looking as if the Earth were about to open up and swallow him.
"Good, then you will kindly stop interfering with Imperial business," her deadpan expression brought sweat to his brow and he hurried from the building like the hosts of Suville were on his tail.
She turned to Sergeant Berek with a grin, "Tell the men to make themselves comfortable, I'll be in my room getting ready for tonight's ball."
And so it was that two hours later, she was stood here bathed, primped and preened, hair teased into an improbable mountain of curls by her squire and handmaid Sarai. Her emerald gown was accompanied by a necklace and earrings of vitreous rubies and fashionable court shoes of matching red satin. The lantern light caught the flecks of gold thread running through the light felt garment, a feature her mother had insisted on at the fitting.
"Brigdha, for once in your life you will dress like a young lady and not some black-robed sage," the voice had brooked no disagreement, as was always the way with Lady Sorcha Dubhaine. No wonder her oldest daughter preferred the company of books and the other Dubhaine children had fled overseas.
"Well, I suppose I'd better be heading to the ball," Brigdha sighed as Siara made a few last minute adjustments to her hair.
"You'll be the centre of attention Milady."
"That Siara is what I'm afraid of..."
The slow, strains of elegant court music wafted from the banqueting hall as Brigdha and her honour guard climbed the impressive stone staircase. Two sober rangers flanked her, their sable livery framing her emerald gown, each with his hand resting on the hilt of a heavy short-bladed sword. Their eyes scanned the shadows tirelessly.
"Oh do stop acting like we're walking into a trap," she turned and placed her palms on their chests. "Tonight is a festive occasion, and if I can manage a smile then so can you."
"Yes Ma'am," Kelvin and Gallorn answered in unison.
"Now there will be soldiers from other companies here, also playing nursemaid, so behave yourselves. Chosen men or not, the honour of Clan Dubhaine is paramount," and she swept up the stairs with all the grace and dignity of a Dame of The Empire.
February 11th - Nida
The foppish noble sat next to her was Sir Valen Resurane, one of the wealthy suitors whom Brigdha's mother had hoped to relieve of his family fortune. Unfortunately his handsome manners were accompanied by the most tedious of minds, making the renewal of their previous acquaintance a very unwelcome turn of events. And here she was, sat next to the pompous oaf as he had the cheek to instruct her on the finer points of archery in the hunt!
Her eyes idly toyed with the dancers, their courtly choreography tracing arcs of gaiety in time to the incessant rhythms, and she drifted into a reverie.
"...can of course get a much cleaner shot with the crossbow," she was suddenly aware that his droning voice had come to a natural pause.
"Most interesting Sir Valen. It would appear that you are well versed in the fashions of the hunt. What little I know is from watching my men at their training, " she fancied she could down a half-dozen quail before they came a furlong in range of his brutish crossbow.
"Peasants one and all I don't doubt. Simple folk without the wit to use a sophisticated instrument like the crossbow, of that you can be sure," the arrogance of the man! Not only didn't she want to be in this conversation in the first place, but now he was insulting men of her household. But what could she do without tarnishing the splendour of the occasion?
Khaludh was still slowly walking past tables, where some of the Nobles still were figuring out the meaning their squeaking toys. After a while he noticed two Nobles sitting at a table. One of them, a male he didn't recognize, was apparently very busy telling a grand story and looking at how he told it, Khaludh assumed it was probably about the Noble himself. He recognized the Lady next to the Noble, as Lady Brigdha Dubhaine, whom that had seen the Empire as the only important thing in this world. He couldn't help but notice she was beautifully dressed this evening. He saw that Lady Dubhaine wasn't as interested in the story as the Noble that was telling it. He could see her eyes looking around the hall, obviously not paying much attention to her companion.
Assuming that she wasn't very happy with the Noble, Khaludh approached Lady Dubhaine. He felt sorry for her if she indeed was stuck with someone she didn't like. The least he could do was offer her a way out. Even though their opinion were quite different last time they had written to each other, he couldn't but admire her loyalty towards the Empire. Of course Khaludh had very warm feelings for the Empire to, but he still was afraid she had not fully understood that:
"Its a pleasure to meet you, Lady Dubhaine. Its good to see you made it to the festivities. Viscount Haine has truly done a great job. However it would be quite a waste of a wonderful evening if there is no dancing. May I request the honour of a dance with you, Lady Dubhaine?"
Brigdha cut her companion short in mid-sentence, "Sir Valen, have you been introduced to the Right Honourable The Lord Telrunya, Baron of Nardil?" she had briefly seen the Baron holding court during a visit to Nardil, and was pleased that her memory for faces had not escaped her.
"Good evening My Lord," the knight bowed his head slightly, voice heavy with the obsequious arrogance of the professional courtier.
"The Baron and I have been holding a most stimulating debate on the nature of jurisprudence in The Empire," she smiled warmly, "but I fear I may have caused him some small annoyance with my more outspoken views."
"Ah yes, outspoken views. Of course at court we have very clear views on the role of Imperial Law. Why as I was saying to Lord Lirenal, one of the Gentlemen of the Imperial Bedchamber, what we need is more Law don't you know."
"I'm sure I do Sir Valen, but I believe My Lord Telrunya will think us most rude if we keep him waiting for an answer. Isn't that so My Lord?"
The Baron nodded assent, barely able to disguise his amusement.
"Then I would be happy to accept your kind invitation My Lord."
"Good evening, Sir Valen. I suggest we save the debates for some other time. I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunity after the festivities."
Khaludh wasn't planning on ruining this evening with discussions regarding Laws and other things. He tried to avoid it this way, though wasn't planning on ever meeting Sir Valen again. After his reply on Sir Valen, Khaludh turned to Lady Dubhaine and offered his arm. Lady Dubhaine accepted it and he escorted her to the dance floor:
"Lady Dubhaine. My gratitude for this honour. Debate is always healthy for a empire. You have far from annoyed me. I just pray that I haven't made a bad impression on you explaining my views. And else I will be forced this evening to convince you that I'm a very nice man after all."
They both reached the dance floor. The musicians apparently hadn't yet found out that Lord Haine had stopped dancing and were still avoiding the more difficult songs. Khaludh was relieved he could warm up a bit with the somewhat easier songs.
Brigdha could feel a slight blush colouring her cheeks as the Baron guided her around the floor. Whilst she had been tutored in all the courtly arts she usually found herself feeling strangely uncomfortable in social settings, preferring her books and the earthy banter of her soldiers. However the Baron's manner was so charming and unaffected - and truth be told he was rather more dashing than she had imagined - that she found herself swept up in the emotion of the evening.
This must be how it felt to be a lady at the Imperial Court, freed from such mundane concerns as life or death to focus on those other essentials: what to wear and where to wear it! The thought made her smile, wondering what Sergeant Berek would say if he were to see her now.
"Truth be told My Lord, I see much greater virtue in a man who expresses his views plainly than one who hides behind affected manners," and she cast a glance at Sir Valen that brought a smile to both their faces. "Believe it or not, my mother wanted me to marry that boorish oaf."
February 12th - Nida
"Sadly that is life, Lady Dubhaine. A couple more often marries to keep the families friendly, then to honour the love between them. Its a shame, really. Luckily I never had to go through that. My family seems to have no need to strengthen any relation with a other family."
With a smile Khaludh added:
"I truly hope you can find someone suited for you, Lady Dubhaine, and convince your parents. From the short meeting we had, Sir Valen doesn't seem like a good choice."
Khaludh enjoyed the evening. He found Lady Dubhaine very charming. Apparently their discussion was just very ill-timed and had done more bad then good by giving him a wrong first impression. He was glad things could be set straight like this. He hadn't expected much from this evening. After all, there was no thrill of battle to be found here. However it seemed he had been wrong. Perhaps peace wasn't that boring after all. As Khaludh began to enjoy the dance more and more, he thought by himself:
"Well done, Samuel, well done. If you managed to get me so far to fully enjoy this, then you truly must have organized a masterpiece."
Khaludh's attention quickly changed back to Lady Dubhaine though. He felt sorry for her to have such a difficult family. That such a beautiful lady had to be with such a noble for the rest of her life. She hadn't deserved something like that.
Baron Telrunya was a much more accomplished dancer than Brigdha would have imagined from a soldier of his reputation and for a few fleeting moments she let herself glide with the music. But peace is ever the prelude to war and idle pleasure the mother of bitter adversity, a fact which of late had been lost on many amongst the Imperial nobility.
The music died at a gesture from the legendary Dame Skeen, former General and scourge of Abington, allowing her clear voice to carry across the banqueting hall as she lay claim to her former station. There was rapturous applause from the assembled knights, many of whom had doubtless followed her into battle in previous years.
Brigdha turned to the Baron and was about to comment when she caught sight of Berek standing to one side of the the main entrance hall, signalling to her with a parchment. "If you'll excuse me for a moment My Lord, it appears that my sergeant has a message for me," and she beckoned the slightly breathless man-at-arms to join them.
"Fresh orders from Duke Pikku ma'am," he handed her the scroll and she examined the seal before deftly breaking it. Inside were instructions transferring her command to the Calis Lions and requesting that she rendezvous with the rest of the army in Nida.
"It would appear that our next dance My Lord will most certainly be on the distant fields of Suville."
February 14th - Nida
Brigdha slipped from the elegant gown with a sigh of relief. The Ball had been a wonderful break from her usual routine of nights under canvas whilst policing the Imperial Highways, but her assignment to the ferocious Calis Lions had lifted her spirits much further: the war in the south must be about to warm up again, and this time she would be following the colours of the Empire the plain of Suville!
"Fetch my boots Sarai," she pulled her travel-stained pants on one leg at a time and tucked the tail of her shift out of sight.
"Has a date for our departure been set yet ma'am?" the young squire helped her force her feet into the tight-fitting leather.
"Not yet, but it can't be many days longer. In the meantime we're off to Esgalons to deal with an outbreak of monsters in the region. Peasants being eaten, crops stampeded, that sort of thing. Now help me on with this tunic," the two-dozen buttons fought hard for their liberty, but the outcome was inevitable. All that remained was to buckle the short-bladed archer's blade around her waist and none would ever suspect that scant hours before she had been hob-nobbing with the creme of the nobility militant.
February 15th - Nida
The sounder of gargantuan wild boar were maybe two hundred yards away in a wooded copse when the revellers began marshalling. Usually at this point the beaters, co-opted from the ranks of lightly-armed infantry, would fan out through the underbrush and drive the startled beasts with flaming torches until their frenzy was sufficient for the dangerous spectacle of knights taking them at close quarters. That was how Brigdha and many of her peers had first learned the cold sting of courage.
But today there were so many of the Empire's finest in attendance that a party atmosphere seemed to dominate the field, and in the confusion of half-sobered knights and their disorganised retainers - many of whom were still blocking the road halfway back to Nida - it was apparent that the quarry could be long gone before the beaters had been selected.
"It's a veritable shame Ma'am, if you don't mind me saying, but we'll miss out on a good roast if these fine Lords and Ladies don't do something soon," Berek casually rested his weight against his bow-stave.
"It does indeed feel like we might be missing a fine opportunity," Brigdha shaded her face with her hand and studied the huge boar and his harem, judging the distance with a practised eye. At this range they'd have little difficulty hitting the damn things, but their shots would have to be pin-point accurate to fell them.
"Lads!!" she called her men to attention, "seeing as no one else seems interested in a roast dinner, we're going to claim ourselves a couple."
A round of cheers went up from The Black Swans, the wild woodsmen never missing a chance for a fine hunt. Bows were being strung and arrows loosened in their quivers even as she spoke.
"Form line, and hold your fire until the one-fifty mark," Sergeant Berek knew his business and within moments had the rangers in position, arrows knocked and aimed. Meanwhile Brigdha slipped into the underbrush, moving with all the stealth of a wolf as she circled the copse and came upon it from the north side. She could see the gathered nobles still joking and enjoying their stirrup cups, small silent pin-pricks in the distance. Luckily they were downwind of her quarry and the sounder continued to root amongst the isolated patch of woodland, oblivious to the fate which awaited them.
Brigdha felt almost sorry for them. The giant forest boar is one of the most awe-inspiring sights, and tenaciously fearless. In many ways the model of knighthood. The tusks of the boar can easily skewer both horse and rider, and they've been known to puncture plate armour as if it were brittle parchment, but this was not their natural home and she could only speculate on what strange twist of fate had brought such a large sounder rampaging across the open fields of Esgalons. No matter. They didn't belong here and the local peasants were in mortal danger whilst they remained.
When she was on the far side of the copse she crept as close to it as she dared, aware that the wind was blowing her scent towards the blissfully ignorant beasts. Her plan was a simple one: to set a fire in the underbrush, startling the animals and driving them in a blind panic towards the waiting hunters. Of course a panicking boar is a dangerous sight to behold, but she was confident that her men could lay down enough covering fire that by the time the herd reached the hunters much of the fury would have been stolen from their headlong flight.
She set the flames cautiously in the dry underbrush and retreated to let them do their work. The fire caught rapidly and the trees were filled with commotion as the boar, stag, bird and every other animal came charging out into the open. Brigdha was barely half-way back to the encamped army when the sounder erupted from the trees in panic along with all the denizens of that woodland oasis. The time for stealth having passed she sprinted for all she was worth as a flight of well-aimed arrows arced over her head, the terrified, enraged animals charging behind her with all the force of a squadron of Imperial knights.
At first only the few well-aimed shots of her snipers were raining amongst the onrushing tide of wildlife, but soon the ragged volleys of other companies joined them, the massed weight of the battlefield, and by the time she reached her men there were knights moving forwards with their retinues to tackle the last of the boars at close quarters. The weakened beasts were little sport and within minutes the threat to the local peasantry had been utterly destroyed. An hour later the majority of the hunting party were either busy tucking into freshly roasted boar flesh or else heading back to Nida to rejoin the celebrations.