February 15th - Akesh Temple
Drumhead tribunals were something Moira dreaded, the rushed trial of men who she would have preferred to give an honourable death in battle. But Akesh Temple had been a traitorous canker on Fontan's southern flank for many years and rooting out those who had actively sort to overthrow democracy and the rule of law for their own twisted religious ends required harsh measures.
She'd established her court in the palatial home of a now-dispossessed courtier and since the government of Akesh fell her men had been helping the newly-established police force hunt out saboteurs and black marketeers, the mufti-clad Yfain using his underworld connections to good effect. It was on one of these raids the day before that they'd caught a messenger for the resistance movement preparing to slip over the border to Caligus, and under forceful interrogation he'd given up the location of a safe-house in one of the outlying villages. Her men had fallen on the manor house just before dawn, their black peasant garb blending into the night, smashing the doors in with their fearsome axes and spreading panic through the building. Those who tried to escape were cut down where they stood whilst a dozen survivors were dragged back to the city to await trial.
"Jerra Sundersun, you have been found guilty by this tribunal of plotting the overthrow of the government of Fontan. Have you anything you wish to say before sentence is passed on you?" this was the last hearing of the day, and Moira had already passed sentence of death on seven of the twelve defendants.
"The Light of Fontan will triumph over your filthy stinking heathen democracy!" the woman's bestial snarl was followed by a venomous spit as she struggled to free herself from the two guardsmen holding her.
"Then by the power invested in me as a knight, you are to be taken from this court to a place of execution, there to be hung until you are dead," she consoled herself with the thought that four of the defendants had shown remorse for their acts, and even now they were waiting in the makeshift cells for transport to the mines of Evora where they would serve their varying terms of penal servitude.
"NONE CAN DENY THE LIGHT!!! ALL WHO STAND AGAINST IT SHALL BECOME AS ASH!!!" the woman continued to rave and rant as she was dragged outside to the awaiting prison cart, it's iron-barred cage already sprouting talon-like limbs and snarling maws.
"WE SHALL BE MARTYRS OF THE TRUTH!!!" cried one, whilst others began singing hymns of praise to the Celestial Gods.
"They seem happy enough with your judgement Ma'am," Carl signalled for the rest of the men to follow as they set off on foot for the chosen execution ground, the city's main vegetable market.
"Fanatics are always happy to die, it's living that they have difficulty with," Moira shook her head in bemusement. She'd stood a dozen times or more in battle and felt the icy sting of metal skewering her soft flesh, and yet death held no appeal for her. Life was all too brief in these war-torn lands, and death had claimed many of those she held dear, but she could see no sense in the grim fate these misguided souls savoured. Still, it was their choice.
When the convoy reached the appointed place there were cheers of support from the crowd for the condemned men and women. Well, what else could be expected. These poor fools had lived under the cult delusions of their self-serving theocrats for too many years to easily see the freedom and prosperity that they would now enjoy having returned to the bosom of Fontan.
Five grim tripods had been erected, and the prisoners were distributed amongst them, helped up onto waiting wooden stools, the nooses lowered over their heads and fastened around their necks. Moira took her place in front of the crowd, the fearsome axes of her men - those very same men who had cut their way through the city's finest during the final assault - forming a ragged cordon.
"People of Akesh, these men and women have been found guilty of High Treason and crimes against Fontan. They have shown no remorse for their actions, or for the many deaths which they planned, and as such this court has had no choice but to impose the full penalty that the law allows," she turned to face the gallows, "You are hereby sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead, your bodies then to be displayed in gibbets as a warning to all of the fate awaiting those who would impose tyranny on the free peoples of Fontan."
The stools were yanked away and the condemned bodies twisted gruesomely on their flaxen tethers, limbs flailing as their faces darkened and blotched. A few scattered voices half-heartedly voiced Celestial Hymns, but most who watched that sorry spectacle stood in silence and any glamour associated with martyrdom was soon lost in the smell of excrement and the staccato jerking of dying limbs.
February 22nd - Krimml
Moira's pavilion sat at the heart of a sea of bright silks and beyond that the city of felt and canvas that attended to the needs of her Cagilan Guards. At each town and village on the forced march north from Akesh Temple her small band of loyal veterans had been greeted with cheers and hospitality, the word of their brave battle on the ramparts of that once-blighted citadel having spread like wildfire through the southern provinces.
Their regimental colours were now known from Ashforth to the borders of Caligus, the Star of Fontan overlaid with the Caligan Gryphon Rampant and their motto "by the jaws". The cunningly crafted black armour with its snarling lion helms was dull and encrusted with mud as they marched ever closer to the capital, nor was their manner that of the disciplined companies which formed the backbone of Fontan's military might, but the easy familiarity belied a band of warriors who in the heat of battle fought - and if necessary died - as one.
And yet Moira was all too conscious of the new duties awaiting them, for the Imperial Cagilan Guard had been called to the highest calling of a Knight of the free peoples: they would be joining the ranks of the Lions and standing side-by-side with the first among all the warrior societies of the world. She and her men had worked hard for this day and this honour, for the right to stand in the front rank of Fontan's most feared army and wreak utter annihilation on her enemies.
But the Guard were a small company, quite unlike the ranks of disciplined infantry that Count Sulliven and Marshal Ertugrul had gathered to their banner, and she wondered where she would find sufficient men to fill out their ranks. And what impact would an influx of new recruits have on their combat readiness?
The small column had arrived at Krimml late in the evening, tired and hungry and barely able to get their camp in order. That was how she remembered it: the small cluster of pavilions on the sward outside the main city gate, Yfain and Rollo taking the first watch whilst the other men sat joking around the campfires, telling stories of distant Atamara and the fair maidens of Calis and Cagil and mountainous Eaglin. Moira joined them for a while, sharing their relief at being for one night free from the concerns of war, but eventually she retired to ponder her conundrum.
It as an hour past dawn and she was deep in a strange dream in which her young brother Cathal was soaring high above her on the wings of a raven, plunging into an approaching storm. The details were vivid and she tried to call to him, to summon him back to her. She came to with a start to find Iraen leaning across her cot, behind her the sounds of commotion in the camp.
"Ma'am, Captain Heinman requests that you join him immediately," she was holding Moira's tunic and breeches in one hand and drawing back the covers with the other.
"What's all that noise Iraen?"
"Volunteers ma'am. And there's also a messenger from Lord Zanzart who requests an audience with you."
Volunteers? Moira hurried into her clothes and pulled her fiery black hair back into a knot as a single concession to good grooming. Stepping through the pavilion flap she was utterly flabbergasted by the site which met her eyes. Well over one hundred men mustered in the camp, émigrés from the length and breadth of Fontan dressed in a motley assortment of colours and styles, ranging between twenty and fifty years of age and each with the hardened look of the professional soldier. At sight of Moira they cheered so loud that Carl Heinman had to bellow repeatedly to get them to quieten back down.
"And what do we have here?" she stood with her hands on her hips, eyes taking in every detail of dress and stance.
One of the men stood to attention and replied, "We're here to join your regiment Ma'am and fight for Fontan."
She studied him for a moment, "Why should the Imperial Cagilan Guard accept any of you into its ranks? We who have crested the walls at Ashforth and Akesh Temple? We who stood in the bloody mire of Oberndorf not once nor twice but thrice in succession. Why should we accept you into our ranks?"
There was a deafening silence.
The man who had spoken before stepped forward, "Because we are blood of the same blood Ma'am. And we would die with our brothers earning glory for our families, for the Empire which spawned us, and for the people of this foreign land who have welcomed us and taught us the true meaning of liberty."
"Noble sentiments," she walked towards them, arms folded, "but we demand more. It is not enough to be Cagilian. None may wear the black armour and lion helm unless he prove himself worthy."
She turned to Carl, "Captain Heinman, Yfain and yourself can put them through their paces. Work them until they drop and pick the best. We need to field sixty men when we return to the front for there is still much to be done in the north."
"Yes Ma'am!" she dreaded to think the punishing tests her two closest retainers would put these aspirants through, but given the stench of death which clung to the regiment she would not take any man who was not fully prepared for the task.
To the gathered throng, "Not all of you will be chosen. There is no shame in this. No dishonour. There is but one Cagilan Guard in this whole continent, one regiment to uphold our forefathers' proud tradition of military excellence. But there are many Fontanese regiments who would benfit from your service and from the courage which I know each of you possesses. By the jaws!"
"BY THE JAWS!!!"
"Now where's that messenger?" she turned back to Iraen.
"In the Captain's quarters Ma'am."
"Good, then let's see what business he has here."
It transpired that he had brought a chest of gold to pay for recruiting and refitting, "My Lord Zanzert welcomes you to the Lions Ma'am and requests that you use this small bursary wisely."
"Tell your Master that this gift is much appreciated and that we shall rendezvous with the Army as soon as we are in a fit state to march."
February 24th - Commonyr
Moira sat in her pavilion reading the day's despatches whilst Iraen massaged the knots from her aching muscles. The day had started early with a brief but bloody engagement driving off Sirionite raiders, her newly-enlarged force making a reasonable showing for their first battle together. Of the sixty-three men who followed her into battle, only Aoidh had taken a wound - grappling with an elven standard bearer for the Wind Walkers colours.
Yfain and Carl were standing nearby studying a map of the northern realms and guessing at the disposition of enemy troops. If today's intelligence reports were anything to go by the Northern Alliance was crumbling on all fronts, coloured wooden markers showed the positions of Fontanese troops and of known enemy forces.
"Now here's a funny tale," Moira raised herself up on her elbows and passed the letter to her advisors, "it seems that fatuous arse Sir Louis de la Fere was apprehended robbing the Krimml Tax Office."
Yfain studied the report from Sir Elberan, "The lad has a lot to learn about larceny if he's that easily apprehended." He handed the letter to Carl, a broad grin on his face.
"This is going to look bad for Chancellor Tal and his faction - Sir Louis is one of his most vocal supporters," the captain scratched his greying stubble where he'd yet to shave.
"Well I would have thought Sir Aeneas would have been less than pleased to have Oporto associated with this sort of behaviour, but it seems he's taken the whole affair quite lightly," Moira settled herself back down onto the trestle couch.
"Bah! That's the bloody nobility for you - all sticking together. If that had been a commoner he'd have been strung up by now and the whole affair forgotten," as usual Yfain didn't mince his words, doubtless remembering some friend who'd suffered a similar fate.
"Well if they'd been caught red-handed it wouldn't take long for a court to decide the case, now would it?" Moira reached down to the salver in front of her, poured a goblet of sweet elven wine and took a thoughtful sip.
"There could of course be more to this than meets the eye," Carl was reading a report of the troop dispositions in Tabost.
"You mean a conspiracy?" Iraen blurted out. "Sorry Ma'am. I didn't meant to interrupt..."
"That's okay lass," Yfain cast her a roguish grin, "it's the thought on all our minds."
"Indeed it is Yfain," Moira swung herself into a sitting position, pulling the towel around her. "The evidence doesn't look good for Sir Louis. The Tax Office guards are hardly likely to have concocted such an implausible story by themselves, and Banker Carnes clearly puts a lot of stock by their account. But a noble of Sir Louis's public stature is hardly likely to take such a risky course of action unless he hoped to profit by it in ways other than purely financial. After all, what would a few gold from the Krimml treasury be worth to a man with estates and the ear of those in high office?"
"Then again," Yfain's face turned serious, "what would Sir Louis have to gain?"
"Well were it not for the fact he was apprehended in the act I'd assume some political enemy were seeking to undermine his reputation by spreading rumours," Moira bit her bottom lip.
"Then treason it must be," Carl sat down next to her.
"I pray you're wrong Carl," she placed her hand on his shoulder, "the enemy within is by far the most dangerous..."
February 28th - Oberndorf
Moira swung herself nonchalantly into the saddle, settling herself on Ironhoof's muscular back and running her hand gently along his strong, proud neck. What remained of her beloved guards were now packed into Helion's ambulance wagons, covered with blood and glory, the few still standing grinning and joking with the grim determination of the condemned. For once even the roguish Yfain looked to have had his fill of bloodshed.
"Go grab yourself one of those elven steeds man, you've more than earned it," her captain Carl sat next to the driver of one of the supply carts, his freshly cracked rib strapped up with white bandages and sweet-smelling herbs.
"I'd rather another cache of their wine," Yfain joked, "but I've sent Rollo to round up all the horseflesh he can find."
Moira nudged her stallion's flank and he sauntered towards the Cagilan giant, "Well let's hope he's back soon as we've orders to pull out to Oberndorf and I don't want to lose any more men."
She thought back to the morning less than a week ago when the newly-expanded guard had set out from Krimml, the eager recruits and the old hands marching side by side, singing Cagilan shanties as they followed the colours north to the front. As the newest regiment inducted into the Lions there was a thrill of excitement running through the ranks and Moira could sense their eagerness to prove their worth in battle.
The opportunity came sooner than expected, arriving in Commonyr on the tails of a Sirionite raiding force. The elves were already in disarray from a hard-fought battle the night before, but facing three regiments of Lions and supporting troops they fled the field in panic. Thus began the lightning strike that would end with the victorious assault on Ashforth and the loss of so many brave men.
At Tabost they'd rallied with the bulk of the army, over three hundred heavily-armed Lions of the Krimml Defence Force encamped with elements of the Fontanese Strike Force, a battered regiment of the Order of Thunder and a dozen free companies. Her trusted veterans, heroes of Oberndorf and Ashforth and Akesh Temple, took the muster in their stride, but for many of Moira's men it was the first time they'd seen a Fontanese battle group close up: the pennants dancing merrily in the wind; the grizzled veterans laughing and joking around the bubbling stew-pots; the camp doxies cavorting lewdly; the squires running betwixt horse picket and pavilions, checking on their knights' steeds or carrying messages from Army Command. All was hustle and bustle and the careless ease of the professional soldier, accustomed to long periods of boredom punctuated by short, sharp, violent clashes of arms. This was the life her men had signed up for, and these were the regiments with whom they would march to glory.
A Sirionite raiding party had attempted to disrupt the mustering, but they were driven off with barely a casualty, and after a few short hours of sleep thirteen regiments of Lions and two free companies under the brave knights Dallas and Saladin struck for Trinbar and the bridge to Sirion. Neither the army nor Sirion could possibly know that this daring move was merely a feint and that the real target of the raid was the city of Ashforth, a masterful stroke worthy of Marshal Ertugrul and his sponsor Count Sulliven, the wiliest of all Fontan's commanders.
The fighting in Trinbar had lasted the better part of two days, but looking back Moira fondly remembered the lull during the first evening when Yfain burst unannounced into her quarters with a wolfish grin and a chest full of silver coins. Moira half choked on the mouthful of chicken she was chewing and Iraen had to puund her back forcefully whilst she coughed and gasped and spluttered for breath.
"Where the hell did you find that?" she finally managed, followed by a huge gulp of the elven wine she was rapidly becoming hooked on.
"It seems these Elves know much about crafting treasures, but little about locksmithing," he laughed and upended the chest, a river of coins spilling on the carpeted earth.
"We also found these Ma'am", Uthwyr, who was standing behind the giant, opened his pack and presented a thick sheaf of Sirionite legal documents: land grants, treasury bonds, and all the other ephemera you'd expect from a local tax office.
"So who's bright idea was it to raid the tax office? You are aware that looting is against Fontanese law?" Moira did her best to look stern, although with Yfain it was always hard work - the man infused all he met with the carefree recklessness of the freebooter.
"Well you could say it was a charitable collection, seeing as Carl had noticed your purse was looking a little light since last pay day," that smile just kept growing wider and wider.
"I see. So this is some kind of donation for the support of distressed gentlewomen?" she couldn't believe she was having this conversation.
"Exactly Ma'am. After all, you have a fair few mouths to feed, and I'm sure none back at headquarters would begrudge the men a meal for their poor starving bellies."
Moira stood and walked to the flap of her pavilion, drawing it back to reveal the drunken carousing outside, "And do any of those men there look like they're in need of a good meal Yfain?"
"Why Ma'am, they're fit delirious with the hunger. If it wasn't for all the grog they've been drinking today, why I doubt a single man jack of them could bare the discomfort."
Those were her lads. It still amazed her that the Lions had accepted such a band of ruffians into their ranks, although she knew it was in large part for their courage and discipline on the battlefield. Such fine lads, and each ready to die for the colours. Moira sighed, remembering that that's just what most of them had done.
From Trinbar the army had launched a feint at Sir Temple, further confusing Sirion's high command, and then pulled back to Tabost to suppress a gang of bandits. Tabost had broken free from her Elven overlords and was now equally as dangerous for nobles of all realms. It was a forceful reminder of the anarchy that ensues when the feudal order breaks down, and why it's so important for the nobility to take care of the peasants: neither class can exist in peace without the other, for the untutored peasants are incapable of maintaining law, and the educated nobility are ignorant of the ways of the land.
Many of the men would probably have appreciated an overnight halt in Tabost - a chance to sleep off three days of marching and skirmishing - but as the sky blackened and the stars shone down, Count Sulliven revealed his true intent and committed the Lions to a forced night march to Ashforth. Scout reports indicated that a new palisade had been erected since the last assault had levelled the city walls, and the defenders would have a numerical advantage: many would have considered such an assault a suicide mission, but the disciplined regiments of the Krimml Defence Force knew no such doubts. These were the legendary army who had twice now captured Ashforth and against whom no force in the north could stand; the army rumour of whom had carried to distant Atamara and caused a young woman to leave her whom and all she loved in hopes of joining their number; the army who stood at the pinnacle of chivalry.
That march deserves its own place in the annals, the heroic myrmidons forging ahead at the double, their baggage train trailing far behind, vulnerable to attack had the enemy but known, their siege engines broken down and manhandled the entire way. And on every quarter the stealthy pathfinders, men such as Moira's own chief scout Rollo, were searching out the hidden ways by which they would catch their enemy unguarded. Many armchair generals believe war to be one on the battlefield by brave knights in shining armour, their steeds thundering towards ranks of ill-prepared peasants, vainglorious valour and cheap heroism. But this is not the truth of war, or the truth of Fontan's might. Look instead to the guides who risk their lives to scout out enemy defences, to the commissaries who manage the supply wagons, and above all else to the poor bloody infantry who march and die without a by-your-leave, in good weather and bad, and with empty bellies and little sleep if such be the orders down the line.
It was barely dawn when the column struck, catching the Rancaguans at sleep behind their wooden walls. It was a fine new palisade they'd raised for themselves, sturdy enough they thought to hold defensively. Moira and her fellow commanders could surely see the merit in that, but within the hour their men had reassembled the siege engines and without further warning they were at the attack, charging through a hail of missiles, pushing their engines before them until they reach the wall. There were dead and dying in their wake, men whose courage had been cut short by cowardly shafts, but their blood was up and with a ferocious roar the Lions fell upon their prey.
Moira was thick in the heat of things, her lion helm growling with the frenzy as she hacked her way through the stunned defenders. But she was not alone, for on every front the high lords of Fontan were wreaking bloody carnage. At one moment she saw Elberan Carnes, the usually mild-mannered Minister of Finance, a civilised man of the court, striking head and helm from a Rancaguan footman with a magnificent roar of triumph; and there was Sir Ertugrul, ever foremost amongst the host, never asking of others that which he would not risk himself. Nor was Moira the only woman to stand equal amongst that company. Kira and her Dark Blades fought with the savagery of the she-vixen as they cut their way through hapless Rancaguan archers and footmen alike, and Marchioness Syntia and her Paladins threw themselves against the Templars without thought for their own safety.
On all fronts the beleaguered enemy was driven mercilessly before a maelstrom of steel as for three long, gruelling hours the confused melee raged through the streets of Ashforth, the exhausted Lions continuing to press their advantage until all the Rancaguan forces were scattered and defeated. Such glory and honour and prestige were won that day as the bards would sing of for a dozen generations!
Later, as Moira and Captain Heinman attended to the burial of their dead, she couldn't help but feel a tragic sense of loss. None of her veterans were amongst the fallen, although a few like Aoidh and Fodoc had suffered grievous wounds and were even now being tended by Helion and his assistant Neris. No, the veterans were rarely the ones who died: it was the poor young lads tasting their first battle, flush with courage but lacking that essential survival instinct that kept a man alive. Or was it an instinct? Thinking of Yfain cresting the wall with his mighty axe in one hand and barely a care in the world, smashing through plate and bone and pretty much anything else that stood in his way, she wondered if it wasn't just strength and luck that carried a man to victory.
And what of the dumb luck that had carried her so far in safety? Well, there had been that bump to the head she'd taken at the battle in Salta, but even that had turned out to her advantage. Who knows what dank dungeon she'd have ended up in if she'd not lain unmolested amongst the slain? Still, if luck had been what carried the battle in Fontan's favour, she wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. And of course that Elven knight at the second battle of Oberndorf, the last time she'd seen the full army of the Northern Alliance gathered in one place. He'd shattered his lance right on her shoulder, knocking her senseless, but aside from a heavy bruise and a day flat on her back even that hadn't been much more than an inconvenience. Perhaps luck wasn't such a bad thing to have on one's side after all...
And now Ashforth had once more lain beneath their feet, the hastily erected ramparts fired and gutted. Of course come nightfall the Rancaguans had mustered enough courage and reinforcements to try and recapture the city, and the tired Lions were forced into another hard-fought battle through its warren-like streets. The fighting was so intense that by the time the enemy had been firmly routed a second time, only nine of the sixty-three men Moira had brought from Krimml were still standing and more than half had lost their lives. The Lions had fought magnificently, but clearly there work here was done and it came as no surprise when orders came down the line to pull back to Oberndorf. Blood drenched Oberndorf, the proving ground where the Imperial Cagilan Guard had first earned their spurs.
The retreat would be a somewhat motley affair, in large part due to the extended caravan of wounded, but there was no dishonour in it. Once more the Lions had delivered a deadly stopping blow to the forces which sought Fontan's destruction, ranging as they pleased through the Sirion marches and Old Rancagua's heartland. But as she sat here on her horse, watching her two dearest friends, Captain Carl Heinman and Yfain, she couldn't help but wonder when Ashforth would permanently fall and the northern realms sue for peace. Had their lords no honour that they would have the peasants live in such distress? But of course the answer to that was obvious, for if they had any honour they would never have attacked Fontan in the first place.
"I've never known Rollo take long, except when he was paying for the privilege," Yfain roared at his own wit, hitching himself up into the wagon behind Carl.
"Well he can catch us up on the road," and Moira turned south, leading her rag tag of wounded back to the front line.