Caeviel’s army is spread out over the hills by political affiliation. Those closest to him, who are also the most powerful of his allies, hold the hills to his flanks while the less loyal are sent to the edges of the army, further from reinforcements.
He however didn’t take risks and organized roaming regiments of cavalry to both intercept any Rykz that manage to infiltrate past their lines and bring relief to the areas that are the most at risk. The low-born peasantry has been deployed in the valleys between the hills because those are the most difficult to defend but the easiest to reinforce.
Cenwalh and his general’s thinking behind it that deployment strategy is that the peasants will break and retreat if pressured but if the Rykz try to take advantage of that and push, they’ll find themselves surrounded by professional soldiers who will charge their flanks from uphill while cavalry regiments move into the valley, taking over for peasantry to charge the Rykz head-on.
As usual, the Order has taken the most dangerous task. Their two thousand armor-plated Templars patrol the stretch of land between the human and the Rykz army, making it impossible for the Rykz to advance and attack the entire line of fortifications at once as the Templars can charge east-west or west-east depending on where they are and keep going without stopping.
This strategy means that, if the Rykz manage to secure a beachhead in a valley, the army can hold until the Templars arrive to entirely surround them. Of course, the Rykz could take over a hill but that’s much more difficult because each has a separate reserve of flow.
Reserves that have only been growing as they’ve used the Emperor’s Due to accelerate the construction of their fortifications, allowing them to stockpile each Noble and soldier’s regeneration.
Yet, King Cenwalh is uneasy. The Rykz have only sent probing attacks during the past week, testing the strength of the fortifications on the hills without truly committing which could mean that they’re aware that attacking the valleys would be dangerous.
A preposterous notion if he believes what Director Suxen told him of the creatures who are merely animals imitating civilization. Cenwalh doubts it as they’ve shown an uncanny ability to avoid traps, spotting cavalry from behind hills and retreating before the regiments can cross valleys and attempt to encircle them.
They’ve spent quite a few shredding runic arrows already in an attempt to quell their numbers but the Rykz warrior’s shields are too sturdy so few truly hit the mark. He considered ordering armor-piercing arrows, but those require double the amount of energy to use and wouldn’t necessarily guarantee kills in one blow.
At least, the ballistas have been very effective but Cenwalh can’t help but be worried at the lack of information about what’s happening south. At night, guards can hear sounds of digging and chopping but none of the scouts he’s sent have returned.
He was certain that the Rykz would assault his lines in an effort to push towards Meiridin and rescue their Princess, yet they’ve shown patience and now, he is uncertain about what to do.
Several of his generals have pushed for an expedition past the first hills that the Rykz hold to get a clear sight of what they’re doing but The Templar Master and the Exemplar assigned to him have both warned him that, much as the valleys are a trap where the Rykz’ numbers won’t be effective, venturing into their territory in enough numbers to have a chance at returning will mean sacrificing the majority of those they send.
If this was a skirmish with Telnur, Cenwalh wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice some for information, but while he feels uneasy, he does not feel the urgency as he has the Rykz confined where they can’t do much damage while his army has the supplies necessary to spend the winter here.
Cenwalh hates the feeling, he is King and as such he believes that the people living on his Kingdom’s lands should be but an extension of his will. Yet, the world is disorder and so he unconsciously pushes the Rykz to the back of his mind to focus setting what he can in proper order, organizing parties to reinforce his power-base by offering gifts, favors, positions in army, and land he acquired from the Hetlan Duchy.
To be able to freely make those moves, he distracts and divides his Court by using of the naive Duchess Edusa Hetlan and Countess Leomi Lance, playing up the threat that their ideology represents because of their popularity among peasantry.
It is easily demonstrable if one looks at how quickly the young, and beautiful, Duchess Edusa won her soldiers over by emptying her exiled mother’s war-chests of gold and equipment, while ignoring the fact that she’s isolated among her own house and Nobility.
Cenwalh makes use of proxies that none know work for him to spread out a forgery of Duke Meria’s will, declaring Countess Lance as the heiress to Izla Meria’s Duchy.
That one move brought the half-dozen Noble families that rule the coast closer to his faction. The Court would never unite against to protest her elevation as they fiercely defend their right to name their own successors.
King Cenwalh is also quite satisfied with the indirect result of the Kingdom’s current predicament as a different Lady warms his bed every night in the hopes of gaining his support whether in politics or military matters.
He even targeted some Lords that made the same proposal to his Queen over the years, leveraging their fear of retaliation into advantages, something he had kept in reserve for a rainy day.
About two-thirds of the way west of the King’s Court, Edusa is pacing inside a tent which is located in the valley between the two hills assigned for her to defend, she spread the Counts and Barons under her to hold the hilltops while she takes charge of the valley’s defense with the cavalry, composed of both Nobles and professional soldiers.
Edusa is waiting nervously, expecting to be summoned or arrested by Cenwalh’s order because of the messenger she sent south. She took every precaution she could, picking a soldier that she has known since she was young.
His face should be unknown to most and he didn’t wear her crest but one of an eastern Baron that remained in Hetlan. He traveled north-west a week ago to infiltrate a dungeon and buy a small rowboat to make his way south to Port-Odo.
She isn’t worried because he hasn’t returned yet, as it is too soon, but because of a cryptic missive she received in the afternoon. That he was spotted and that she would receive a visit soon.
The warning makes little sense, unless the King is currently torturing her messenger for confirmation of her betrayal to present to the Court and waiting for her to try to run to arrest her for desertion.
Edusa hopes the man will admit everything he knows for his own sake as if the King is making moves on her Duchy, then she’s already doomed because he would only do that when certain that he has the Court’s support.
This fear of betrayal is the reason why Caeviel can never unite, she thinks. The core of Countess Lance’ is much stronger precisely because hope brought them together, not greed. As exemplified by Henry and Margaret who responded by standing guard at her tent when she tried to send away.
And so Edusa paces with her sword at her waist, waiting for the end to come but hoping that she’ll have the opportunity to surrender peacefully so that those who followed her won’t have to fight for her.
In the middle of the night, a group of a few of Hetlan’s officers make their way through the camp, escorting cloaked figure. An unusual sight as normally there wouldn’t be more than two along with a squad of soldiers bringing emissaries to the Duchess, and never during the night.
Henry and Margaret raise their spiked maces at their approach, recognizing that the officers are all Nobles and among those whose lands will be seized once Cenwalh takes over, they shouldn’t be aware of that fact yet but it cannot be a coincidence.
The soldiers on guard perk up, put on alert at the possible confrontation. There are almost no Nobles camping near Duchess Edusa, and that is no coincidence either.
The group of officers and the cloaked figure slow down as they approach. Henry and Margaret grow even tenser as they catch sight of the mysterious visitor’s face, the bright green eyes that look so similar to Edusa’s yet communicate ruthlessness where the young Duchess’ contain steadfast resolve.
The person raises her hand to tell the officers to hold back and walks up to the two Nobles who find themselves uncertain as to what to do as this is the very last place they expected to see this Lady.
“I am unarmed.” The middle-aged woman declares.
She has dark rings under her eyes and looks fatigued but still sharp. Margaret blanks, not advancing to check or raising her weapon to attack. Henry thinks on his feet and reaches out to pull the cloak open, verifying her claim.
“Now move aside, I don’t have all night.” She orders with a voice of one who has exercised authority for decades.
Margaret shakes her head, refusing as Henry moves around the woman to pat her back and ankles. Edusa pokes her head out of the tent, having heard the voices. She gapes when her eyes fall on a very familiar face.
“Daughter.” The woman nods.
“Delia.” Edusa replies coldly.
“You’ve done well for yourself, but not so much for our family.” She counters in a calm tone.
“You’re the one who kicked me out.” Edusa answers, ironically kicking herself for sounding so puerile.
“Indeed, I was.” Delia Hetlan admits without shame. “You were supposed to find your way without embarrassing your family, that has quite evidently backfired. May we discuss in private, Duchess Hetlan?”
“I don’t see what more we have to say to each other, I should arrest you right now for violating your exile.” Edusa responds flatly. “How did you even get here?”
“I still have friends at Court and resources you’ve evidently failed to uncover in your haste at carving our family’s lands to hand over to Cenwalh.” Her mother answers with guile.
“Is that what this is about? Spite?” Edusa asks.
“Not quite.” Delia replies calmly.
“That’s it? No threats?” Edusa questions, surprised.
“If you need me to, I’m sure I can put something together.” The middle-aged woman says with a touch of humor.
Edusa throws a glance over her mother’s shoulder, finding the group of officers who don’t have any titles but own land that she’s given over to Cenwalh.
That’s the real threat, she realizes, they could shatter her hold over the army and force her either abandon her ambitions or come begging to the King, or reveal what they know about the messenger she sent.
“Come in.” Edusa decides, moving aside.
The woman nods and walks inside. She pulls the cloak off of her, revealing a dress worn at the hems, the same one she was arrested in and led out of the camp with her belongings.
“First off, let me apologize for my harsh words.” The woman declares formally.
“You didn’t say a thing.” Edusa frowns.
“When I sent you into exile.” She adds.
“You meant every word of it, Delia.” Edusa shakes her head, opening a small cupboard to serve herself a glass of wine, pointedly not offering one to the woman she refuses to call her mother.
“Yet, I was wrong to attack your choices and it cost us dearly.” She admits in defeat. Edusa sighs.
“I didn’t oust you for mere revenge alone.” She denies.
“Yes, I’ve heard, you and that Countess are trying to unite Caeviel against you.” The woman scoffs. Edusa lets the mockery pass. “You’re now at the head of our house and you need to learn about some things I have only told Liliana.”
“Now that you mention her, where did she run to?” Edusa asks.
“She is to find your younger sister and bring her back home to await your return.” Delia replies.
“I’ve already sent word, they won’t be able to access the treasury.” Edusa comments.
“No, but there are assets to recover among the lands you’ve handed over because you wouldn’t spread your legs. I do congratulate you for that, you’re wiser than your siblings in these matters.” The woman says without a touch of warmth in her voice.
“You know too much.” Edusa accuses.
“You can hear the King talk if you know who to listen to.” Delia replies mysteriously.
“What about my messenger?” Edusa questions aggressively.
“Safe and sound, I do not even know where he went although anyone with half a brain can guess you’re reporting to that…” She pauses. “Countess.”
“Good call, stopping there.” Edusa comments somberly, pulling her hand away from her sword’s handle.
“I won’t be threatening you, you won’t even be seeing me again. I’m going to leave Caeviel and head east to Steso. I’ve lost most of everything but I still have skills to offer the Empire.” Delia declares.
“Putting down protests?” Edusa asks spitefully.
“Managing lands to efficiently organize a demesne.” She corrects.
“Why did you stay if you’ve got another life all set up already?” Edusa questions, feeling tired and off-balance by the woman’s conciliatory behavior.
“To transmit what I know and offer you advice.” Delia says. “You remain my daughter and if you are to rule our lands, you should do so with every advantage I can offer you.”
“How magnanimous of you.” Edusa mocks.
“Grow a spine, Edusa!” Delia snaps. “You’re at the head of a broken realm, Cenwalh left you with the mines and the population but stole most of Hetlan’s means of production!”
“I’m aware.” Edusa replies calmly.
“…” Delia falls quiet, having not expected that she would know. “How do you plan to recover?” She finally asks.
“The Kingdom of Mirus has plenty to spare.” Edusa responds, failing to resist the temptation to impress this woman, to show her how wrong she was to exile her.
“You plan to pouch their smiths?” The old Duchess asks, baffled.
“Their population is already on the verge of revolt, all I have to do is offer fair pay and make some reforms.” Edusa explains.
“They’ll never let that pass.” She comments.
“What can they do with Sykus breathing down their necks?” Edusa smiles. “The Templars hunting him have been recalled east.”
“They’re going to accuse you of funding him if you take those smiths.” Delia warns. “They’ll say you’re sending weapons over the border.”
“Why, then I would really have to do it.” Edusa shrugs with a mean smile. “The Empire never declares more than a few leaders as enemies, as long as I do not deal with them, Mirus’ only recourse will be to talk to Cenwalh.”
“And he’ll be milking them every step of the way, demanding commitments on their part that they can’t afford to promise.” Edusa’s mother whispers. “He’ll use that to try to get you in bed, you know that, correct?”
“He would find something else anyway.” Edusa says, looking disgusted. “By the time Cenwalh gives me a firm order, Sykus’ army may even unexpectedly cross over our Duchy’s borders with Hetlan and Izla Meria ready to defy the King. ”
“You’re taking a lot of risks.” The woman comments, looking impressed. “You took much more from me than you admit.”
“I doubt that very much, Delia. I do not act for my own benefit.” Edusa denies.
“Are you not afraid that I’ll betray you to Cenwalh?” She asks.
“No. You have no hopes of being rewarded, you know our family would lose everything.” Edusa explains.
“It remains to be seen whether that’ll be the case anyway.” The old Duchess replies. “No matter, it seems like you’re in even more need of what I have to give you.”
“And what is that?” Edusa asks, settling down with her back against the cupboard and her left hand inside her pocket, holding a small jewel inscribed with disruption runes.
“A list of contacts.” Delia tells her daughter, pulling a piece of paper out of her pocket.
Edusa snatches the list out of the woman’s hands and runs her eyes over it, finding familiar House names but also that of servants with the name of who they serve written down in parenthesis next to it, even some who work or have worked for her siblings.
“You have a spy network.” Edusa exclaims in surprise before settling down. “Of course you have a spy network. Why are some names crossed in red?”
“You will have to work hard to bring our house to its previous heights but you’ve taken the task so you must put your ideals aside and accept that, sometimes, a ruler needs to dirty their hands.” Delia declares. “Those who refused to serve you or would undoubtedly refuse have been purged. A few located at a distance will be eliminated within the coming week.”
“They served you, why kill them if they refuse to help me?” Edusa asks sadly.
“Because they know those they have contacts with, Daughter.” Delia explains. “It was a choice between sacrificing those who maintain the network and those who might betray it.”
“Ruthless as usual, the responsibility of those deaths lies on you, not me.” Edusa shakes her head.
“And their lives are now in your hands.” The middle-aged woman replies, looking down at the list. “Take that seriously or give up the title.”
“I have no intention of shrinking in front of my duty.” Edusa declares.
“Now, we must discuss the five waiting outside.” Delia says.
“What do they know?” Edusa asks tensely.
“Most of everything, they are your most skilled subjects in flow despite only being Barons, and Baronesses. I would suggest you offer them advisory positions so you can keep a close eye on them and judge whether you can trust them and offer them some of my personal holdings to buy their loyalty.” The woman closes her eyes for a second. “Don’t dismiss them, they will follow you to retrieve their lands or you will find that they’ll be in the way of your ambitions, sooner rather than later.”
“I’ll think about it.” Edusa replies noncommittally.
“Also, you now need to think about marriage.” Delia carefully tells her daughter.
“I most certainly do not.” Edusa frowns.
“Unless you want to allow Liliana a stronger claim to your title, you can be certain that she’ll be getting married very soon, you need to start considering such things. There are many potential candidates, Cenwalh’s sons among…”
“No.” Edusa interrupts her mother, glaring. “I’ll designate an heir as I see fit, when I see fit, I don’t need to spawn one.”
“Our family…” Delia starts.
“Will die when I do if Liliana is foolish enough to try me.” Edusa threatens. “We both know Aline will end up having a bastard with some random sailor and both my brothers are already engaged out of the family.”
“I’ll… transmit that warning.” Delia says, trying to be conciliatory. “I have a few more things to tell you about how to deal with Cenwalh.”