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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, February 8, 2010 18:43 EST



Castle Mairwyn,
City of Serabor,
Barony of Larchros,
Princedom of Corisande

    Damn, it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a mountain slash lizard, Sahlahmn Traigair, the Earl of Storm Keep, thought as he climbed down from the saddle at last.

    October was summer, not winter in Corisande, but no one could have proved it by the cold, icy rain pounding the streets and roofs of Serabor. The same icy mountain rain which had pounded him and his companions for the entire day just past. It wasn’t as if Storm Keep was unfamiliar with the local weather. His own earldom lay just to the northeast of Larchros, and he’d been a fairly frequent visitor here over the years. More than that, the jagged Marthak Mountains formed the border between Larchros and the Earldom of Craggy Hill. Despite the fact that the equator passed directly across the northern Marthaks, there was snow on their highest peaks almost year-round, and the Barcor Mountains, in whose foothills Serabor nestled, were even taller.

    It’s not really cold enough to freeze anyone, I guess, he admitted grudgingly, reaching back to massage his posterior as the rest of their sizable party of servants, retainers, and guards dismounted around them. It sure as hell feels that way, though!

    “Welcome to Castle Mairwyn, My Lord,” a voice said, and Storm Keep turned to the speaker. Rahzhyr Mairwyn, Baron Larchros, was just as wet — and looked almost as miserable — as Storm Keep felt, but he still managed a smile. “If you’re not too thoroughly frozen, I expect there’s a fire and hot chocolate – or maybe even something a bit stronger – waiting for us.”

    “Now that, Rahzhyr, sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day!” Storm Keep said with a smile of his own.

    “Then let’s go find both of them,” Larchros invited, and waved for Storm Keep to accompany him as efficient grooms led their mounts away.

    The earl nodded, and the two of them headed out of the brick-paved stable yard, across the castle’s main courtyard, and up the steps to the massive, old-fashioned central keep. Castle Mairwyn was well over three centuries old, and despite the enlarged, many-paned windows which had replaced most of the Keep’s upper firing slits, the old fortress looked its age. Personally, Storm Keep preferred his own much newer residence in the city of Telitha, looking out over the sparkling blue waters of Telith Bay. He certainly preferred the scenery, at any rate. However picturesque they might be, Serabor’s narrow, twisting streets were a far cry from Telitha’s broad, straight avenues. But that was because Serabor was perched atop a “hill” which would probably have been called a mountain anywhere except in the Barcors. The last mile or so to the city’s gate had been a steady uphill slog which had been pure, un-distilled misery for their horses, and the castle itself crowned the solid plug of granite Serabor had been built around so long ago.

    Still, Storm Keep thought, whoever picked this as the place to build a castle knew what he was doing. Just getting at it would be an unmitigated pain in the arse. And actually storming the place would be a hell of a lot worse than that!

    That wasn’t a consideration he would have spent a great deal of time on as little as three months ago; at the moment, though, it loomed large in his thinking.

    They reached the top of the steps and entered the keep’s main hall. Lady Larchros was waiting for them, smiling in welcome, and Storm Keep was delighted to see that she was, indeed, holding a steaming cup of hot chocolate in each hand.

    “Welcome home!” Raichenda Mairwyn said, smiling at her husband, then switched her attention to Storm Keep. “And twice welcome for the visitor, My Lord! The watch warned me you were coming, and given the weather, I was sure both of you would appreciate this.”

    She extended the steaming cups, and Storm Keep smiled broadly as he cupped both chilled hands around the welcome warmth.

    “You are a hostess among hostesses, Lady Raichenda,” he said, then raised the cup and sipped appreciatively. The warmth seemed to flow through him, and he sighed in bliss. “Langhorne will reward you in Heaven,” he assured her.

    “Perhaps so, My Lord.” Her voice and expression had both turned sober. “It’s to be hoped it will be for more than a simple cup of chocolate, though.”

    “May it be so, indeed,” he murmured, meeting her eyes levelly. Apparently she was even deeper into her husband’s confidence than Storm Keep had anticipated.

    Well, you’ve known for years that he dotes on her, he reminded himself. And woman or not, she’s one of the smarter people you know, for that matter. Even if he hadn’t told her a word, she’d guessed what’s toward soon enough.

    “In the meantime, though,” she continued, “I’ve had hot baths drawn for both of you. Mairah” – she nodded to one of the serving women hovering in the background – “will show you to your room, My Lord. I imagine there’s a fair chance your baggage is at least a little damp, given the weather. But you and Rahzhyr are much the same size, I believe, and I’ve had a selection of his garments laid out for you. I’ll have your valet sent up to join you as soon as he comes in from the stables. For now, please – go soak the chill out of your bones!”



    An hour or so later, and feeling almost sinfully warmed and comfortable, Storm Keep found himself seated in a richly upholstered chair in the chamber Larchros used as an office. The baron’s clerk was nowhere in sight, but Father Airwain Yair, Larchros’ chaplain and confessor, sat in a marginally plainer chair on the far side of the fireplace. Rain pattered against the windows and gurgled musically through gutters and downspouts, a coal fire seethed quietly in a shallow grate, decorative cut crystal glittered on the marble mantle above the fire, and all three of them had snifters of brandy at their elbows. It was as peaceful and welcoming a scene as Storm Keep could have imagined, yet Yair’s expression was anxious as he looked at Larchros.

    “So the traitors have truly decided to capitulate to Cayleb, My Lord?” The priest sounded as if even now he found it difficult to believe.

    “In fairness, Father,” Storm Keep said before the baron could speak, “it’s not as if the Regency Council had a great deal of choice. With Prince Hektor and his son both dead, Daivyn out of the princedom, and Cayleb besieging the capital, their only real options were surrender or standing a siege which could end only one way.”

    “True enough, Sahlahmn,” Larchros’ voice was considerably harsher than the earl’s had been, “but there’s a difference between a tactical decision to surrender a city and what Father Airwain has so aptly called ‘capitulating.’”

    “There, I can’t argue with you,” Storm Keep conceded, his own voice bleaker. “Mind you, I do think there’s some point to Anvil Rock’s argument. With no army left in the field, with our navy sealed up in port, and with Cayleb in position to bring in still more troops whenever the urge struck him, what were we supposed to use to stop him from doing whatever he wanted? He already had thousands of men in the Princedom, and he hadn’t even begun deploying any Chisholmian troops here, so he still had every single soldier in Sharleyan’s army — a considerably larger and even more professional army than the one he’d already brought with him, I might add — in reserve. I, on the other hand, have less than eighty armsmen in my entire guard. How many do you have?”

    Larchros growled, but he couldn’t dispute the earl’s point. It had taken Prince Fronz, Prince Hektor’s father, the better part of twenty years to complete the process of stripping his nobles of their feudal levies, but he’d managed it in the end. And, truth to tell, Storm Keep and most of his fellow aristocrats had seen the wisdom of his policy — after the fact, at least. After all, the Royal Army, with its core of professional, long term troops, would have made mincemeat out of any levies one of them (or even an alliance of several of them) could have put into the field against it, anyway. None of them could afford to maintain a force which could have changed that, even assuming Fronz had been willing to let them try. Which he hadn’t been. He’d made that point rather firmly, and the plain truth was that most of his magnates had been just as happy to avoid the sort of occasional fratricide which had wracked parts of Corisande with dreary predictability under Fronz’s father and grandfather. At least this way each of them was spared the expense of maintaining his own private troops while the Army saw to it that none of his fellows were in a position to threaten him.

    Unfortunately, that policy of Prince Fronz’s had just come home to roost with a vengeance.

    “The largest force any of us – even someone like one of the dukes – can command is barely enough to keep the peace in his own lands, and not one of us has any of the new weapons,” the earl pointed out remorselessly. “Would you like to try to stand up to a battalion or two of Charisian Marines, with their damned rifles and artillery, with that?”

    There was silence for a moment, profound enough for all of them to hear the patter of the persistent rain against the chamber’s windows. Then Larchros shook his head.

    “No,” he said. “Or . . . not yet, at least.”

    “Exactly,” Storm Keep said very, very quietly, and he and the baron looked at one another.

    It wasn’t as if they hadn’t discussed the situation at length during the endless ride from Cherayth to Serabor. They’d had to be at least a little circumspect, since there was no telling which set of ears, even among their own retainers, might be eager to curry favor with the Charisian occupiers by carrying tales. But they’d known one another for a long time. Neither of them had been left in any doubt about where the other stood. On the other hand ….

    “It’s going to have to be handled carefully,” Storm Keep pointed out softly.

    “Oh, I agree entirely.” Larchros grimaced. “Unless I’m mistaken, at least some of those southerners are actually willing to stand in line to lick Cayleb’s hand . . . or his arse, for that matter!” He shook his head in disgust. “And I never thought I’d say this, but I’m pretty sure Anvil Rock is, too.”

    “Truly, My Lord?” Yair shook his head. “I confess, I always thought the Earl was completely loyal to Prince Hektor. Not to mention Mother Church!”

    “So did I, Airwain.” Larchros shrugged. “From the way he reacted to any suggestion we play for time, though, I’m beginning to think we were both wrong about that. Either that, or the guts have gone out of him. Not to mention his damned son!”

    Storm Keep considered pointing out that Sir Koryn Gahrvai, the Earl of Anvil Rock’s son, had probably done as well as anyone could have in the face of the Charisians’ crushing tactical superiority. Blaming Gahrvai for his army’s defeat, however satisfying it might be, was scarcely an exercise in fair-mindedness.

    On the other hand, fair-mindedness isn’t exactly what we need just now, either, the earl reminded himself. And if being pissed at Anvil Rock and Gahrvai helps . . . motivate Rahzhyr or some of the others, then so be it.

    “At any rate, Father,” he said out loud, looking at the priest, “Anvil Rock, Tartarian, and North Coast have made it clear enough they aren’t prepared to countenance any sort of armed resistance. And before he left for Chisholm, Cayleb – damn his soul! – made it even clearer than that that anyone who wasn’t prepared to swear fealty to him would be deprived of his titles and his lands.” He shrugged. “I can’t say it came as any great surprise. That was the reason he summoned us all to Manchyr in the first place, after all. And however bitter the pill may taste, he’s also the one who won the damned war, so I don’t suppose anyone should be astonished when he acts the part.”

    “And this . . . abomination, My Lord? This ‘Church of Charis’ of his?”

    “And he delivered the same ultimatum to the clergy, Father,” Storm Keep admitted heavily. “I’m sure you’ll be hearing from your bishop – your new bishop, I suppose I should say – to that effect soon enough.”

    “Bishop Executor Thomys has accepted the schism?” Yair stared at the earl in disbelief.



    “No. In fact, the Bishop Executor and Father Aidryan apparently managed to get out of Manchyr, despite the siege lines,” Baron Larchros answered for Storm Keep. “No one seems to know exactly how they did it, but the fact that they seem to’ve done it suggests ‘Emperor Cayleb’ isn’t quite as infallible as he’d like us to believe!”

    “Then who –?”

    “Bishop Klairmant. Or, I suppose, I should say ‘Archbishop Klairmant,’” Larchros said bitterly, and Yair blanched visibly.

    Klairmant Gairlyng, the Bishop of Tartarian, one of the Princedom of Corisande’s most respected prelates, came from the Temple Lands themselves. To be sure, the Gairlyngs scarcely constituted one of the truly great Church dynasties. If they had, Klairmant would undoubtedly have ended up with a more prestigious bishopric. But he was still at least a distant cousin of several current vicars, which had always given him a great deal of moral authority within the ranks of Corisande’s clergy. Worse, he’d served his see for sixteen years now, without taking a single vacation trip back to Zion, and earned a reputation for unusual piety in the process. Having him acknowledge the primacy of the heretic Staynair constituted a serious blow to the Church’s authority, and one of Yair’s hands rose. It signed the scepter of Langhorne, and Baron Larchros barked a laugh which contained very little humor.

    “I’m afraid the good bishop isn’t the only servant of Mother Church who’s turned his coat — or should I say his cassock? — Father,” he said flatly. “In fact, I think that may’ve been the most disturbing thing about this ‘Special Parliament’ of Cayleb’s, when you come down to it. Over a third – almost half, really – of the Princedom’s bishops were prepared to proclaim their loyalty to the ‘Church of Charis.’” His lips worked in disgust. “And where bishops led the way, is it any surprise the rest of the priesthood followed suit?”

    “I can’t . . .” Yair shook his head. “I can’t believe –”

    He broke off, and Storm Keep reached out to pat his knee with a comforting hand.

    “It’s early days yet, Father,” he said quietly. “Yes, I’m afraid Gairlyng truly intends to . . . reach an accommodation, shall we say, with Cayleb and Staynair. I don’t pretend to know what all of his motives are. On the one hand, he’s known Tartarian for years, and as far as I know, they’ve always been on excellent terms. That might be part of it. And, to give Shan-wei her due, I suppose it’s possible he’s at least partly trying to head off any sort of pogrom here in Corisande. The Charisian version of the Inquisition is hardly likely to treat any open resistance by ‘Temple Loyalists’ gently, after all.”

    Although, he admitted to himself a bit grudgingly, this “Viceroy General” Chermyn’s Marines have been a lot “gentler” than I would have expected . . . so far, at least. Musket butts and bayonets are bad enough, but bullets are worse, and he’s been mighty sparing with those, under the circumstances.

    “And maybe Gairlyng, Anvil Rock, and Tartarian all see an opportunity to feather their own nests, and Shan-wei with heading off any ‘pogroms,’” Larchros said bitingly in response to the earl’s last observation.

    “And maybe that, as well,” Storm Keep conceded.

    “You said over a third of the bishops have accepted Staynair’s authority, My Lord,” Yair said to Larchros. “What’s happened to those who refused?”

    “Most of them have gone into hiding like Bishop Amilain, I imagine,” the baron replied, and this time there was at least a hint of genuine humor in his thin smile.

    Amilain Gahrnaht, the Bishop of Larchros, had ‘mysteriously disappeared’ before Larchros set out for Cherayth. The baron didn’t officially know exactly where Gahrnaht had taken himself off to, but he knew Father Airwain did. So did Storm Keep. That, in fact, was the main reason the earl was prepared to speak so frankly in front of a mere chaplain he scarcely knew personally.

    “With the semaphore stations in the hands of Gairlyng’s sycophants,” the baron continued more somberly, “it’s hard to know what’s really going on, of course. A lot of bishops and upper-priests refused – like Bishop Amilain – to obey Cayleb’s summons at all. In the case of bishops who refused, he and Gairlyng appointed replacements before he left, and ‘Viceroy General’ Chermyn’s announced his intention to send troops along with each of those replacements. He says there will be no mass arrests or persecutions of ‘Temple Loyalists’ as long as they refrain from acts of ‘rebellion.’” Larchros snorted viciously. “I can just imagine how long that’s going to last!”

    “But . . . but Cayleb and Staynair have been excommunicated!” Yair protested. “No oath to either of them can be binding in the eyes of God or man!”

    “A point I bore in mind myself,” Larchros agreed with a grim smile.

    “And I,” Storm Keep said. “In fact, I imagine quite a few of Prince Daivyn’s nobles were thinking about that. For that matter, I’m quite certain Bishop Mailvyn was, as well.”

    “Indeed?” Yair perked up noticeably. Mailvyn Nohrcross was the Bishop of Barcor. Unlike Gairlyng, he was a nativeborn Corisandian. In fact, he was a cousin of the Baron of Barcor, and his family wielded considerable influence both within the Church and in secular terms, as well.

    “I wouldn’t say we’ve actually discussed it, you understand, Father,” Storm Keep said, “but from a couple of ‘chance remarks’ he managed to let fall in my presence, it’s my belief Bishop Mailvyn believes it will be wiser, for now, to pay lip service to this Church of Charis. At any rate, I feel reasonably confident he’ll do his best to . . . buffer the blows to those who remain privately loyal to Mother Church.”

    “In fact,” Larchros looked at his chaplain rather pointedly, “if anyone were to have the opportunity to discuss it with Bishop Amilain, I suspect Bishop Mailvyn would be prepared to quietly extend his protection to a fellow prelate unjustly deprived of his office.”

    Yair looked back at him for a moment, then nodded, and Storm Keep shrugged.

    “The truth is, Father Airwain, that no one really knows what’s going to happen. My understanding is that Cayleb intends to leave affairs here in Corisande in the hands of the Regency Council . . . ‘advised’ by his Viceroy General Chermyn, of course. Apparently he cherishes the belief – or the hope, perhaps – that now that he’s taken himself off to Chisholm, people may forget he had Prince Hektor murdered. That’s the real reason we all spent so many five-days parked in Manchyr even after he sailed for Cherayth. Anvil Rock, Tartarian and the others were busy hammering all of us over the head with how deeply committed they are to doing their best to preserve the Princedom intact and defend its ancient prerogatives. They say Cayleb has promised them he’ll leave Corisande as much self-rule ‘as possible.’ I leave it to you to judge just how much ’self’ there’s going to be in that ‘rule’!”

    The priest’s nostrils flared with contempt, and the earl nodded.

    “Precisely,” he said. “For now, at least, though, he’s left Anvil Rock and Tartarian to deal with maintaining order while he dumps the . . . thorny problem, shall we say, of settling the Church’s affairs into Gairlyng’s hands. There were rumors swirling around Manchyr that Staynair himself may be visiting us in a few months’ time. For now, two or three upper-priests from Charis are playing the part of Gairlyng’s intendants, and no doubt keeping an eye on him for Staynair’s version of the Inquisition. Unless I’m seriously mistaken, Cayleb figures his best chance is to at least pretend he plans to ride Corisande with a light rein, if only we’ll let him.”

    “You think that’s why he’s agreed to accept Daivyn as Prince Hektor’s heir, My Lord?”

    “I think that’s part of it, certainly.” Storm Keep waved one hand slowly, like a man trying to fan a way through fog. “To be honest, though, I don’t see what other option he had. He’s made it clear enough that whether we want it to or not, Corisande’s just become part of this ‘Charisian Empire’ of his. That would have been a hard enough pill to force down the Princedom’s throat under any circumstances; after Prince Hektor’s murder, it’s going to be even harder. If he’d set straight out to put one of his favorites in the Prince’s place, or claimed the crown directly in his own name, he knows the entire Princedom would have gone up in flames. This way, he and the ‘Regency Council’ can hide behind Daivyn’s legitimacy. He can even pretend he’s looking out for the boy’s best interests, since, after all, he never had anything to do with Prince Hektor’s assassination, now did he? Oh, no, of course he didn’t!”

    The earl’s irony was withering.

    “And then there’s the consideration that with Daivyn safely out of the Princedom, he’s neatly deprived any potential resistance of a rallying point here in Corisande,” Larchros pointed out. “Worse, Anvil Rock and Tartarian can claim they’re actually looking after Daivyn’s claim to the crown when they move to crush any resistance that does arise! Look at the cover it gives them! And if Daivyn is ever foolish enough to come back into Cayleb’s reach, he can always go the same way his father and older brother did, once Cayleb decides he doesn’t need him anymore. At which point we will get one of his damned favorites on the throne!”

    “In a lot of ways, I don’t envy Cayleb the mouthful he’s bitten off here in Corisande,” Storm Keep said frankly. “Murdering the Prince and young Hektor was probably the stupidest thing he could have done, but Langhorne knows enough hate can make a man do stupid things. I can’t think of any two men who hated one another more than he and Prince Hektor hated each other, either, especially after Haarahld was killed at Darcos Sound. And let’s not even get started on how Sharleyan felt about the Prince! So maybe he simply figured the personal satisfaction of vengeance was going to be worth any political headaches it created. And if he didn’t know Daivyn was already out of the Princedom, he probably figured controlling a little boy would be easier than controlling someone young Hektor’s age, so killing the Crown Prince may have seemed sensible to him, too . . . at the time. For that matter, as you just pointed out, Rahzhyr, he could always have had Daivyn suffer one of those ‘childhood accidents’ that seem to happen to unwanted heirs from time to time.” The earl’s expression was grim, and he shrugged. “But now he doesn’t have Daivyn in his hands, after all, and that leaves the entire situation in a state of flux.”

    “What do you think is going to happen, My Lord?” Yair asked quietly. “In the end, I mean.”

    “At this point, I truly don’t know, Father,” the earl said. “If the Regency Council can keep a lid on things for the next several months, and if Gairlyng and the other Church traitors can cobble together some sort of smooth-seeming transition into this Church of Charis, he may actually make the conquest stand up. I think the odds are against that, and, to be honest,” he showed his teeth in a smile which contained absolutely no humor, “I intend to do everything I can to make them worse, but he might manage to pull it off. For a while, at least. But in the long run?”

    He shrugged.

    “In the long run, as long as Daivyn stays free, there’s going to be a secular rallying point for resistance. It may be located somewhere else, and any sort of direct contact between us and him may be all but impossible to maintain, but the symbol will still be there. It doesn’t matter if the ‘Regency Council’ claims to be acting in his name or not, either. As long as he’s outside the Princedom and ‘his’ council is obviously taking its orders from Cayleb, its legitimacy is going to be suspect, to say the very least. And the same thing is true for Bishop Executor Thomys, as well. As long as the true Church’s hierarchy remains, even if it’s driven underground, then any effort to replace it with the ‘Church of Charis’ is going to be built on sand. Eventually, Cayleb and his cat’s paws are going to find themselves face-to-face with a genuine popular uprising, Father. When that happens, I think they’ll find their authority runs a lot less deeply than they thought it did. And it’s the nature of that sort of thing that one uprising plants the seeds for the next one, whether it succeeds or not. So when the day comes that Cayleb is forced to pull his troops off of Corisandian soil, and recall his ships from Corisandian waters, to deal with threats closer to home, I think those of us who have been planning and working and waiting for that day will be in a position to give him a most unwelcome surprise.”

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