The Tyrant of Kepala
Narcis the Brave (House Vask and the Liberation of Sira Zelaad)
An excerpt from Portraits in the Time of Strife by Halon Barrow Hiller.
The foul and slav’ring goblin horde
Besieged the great and free city.
And Narcis answered to his lord,
“I’ll raise the finest cavalry!”
And ride they did, these polished men,
Racing to the field of war,
And crushed and ground the feckless fiends,
Straight through enemy lines they tore.
The cavalry charged forth and fought
And lashed out for his foe’s black blood,
But the duke’s horse had a different thought
And dumped him straight into the mud.
-From Narcis the Brave
By Saragossa Springheel
(Bard and one time cavalier)
Duke Narcis Vask wandered the great hall of his keep ruminating on the news he had just been given. The southern hordes of hobgoblins had once again risen and marched against a city of men, and a siege had begun. This time it was Sira Zelaad, one of the so-called free city states of the east, hard by the hinterlands.
He raised his head to regard the portraits of his ancestors, a male line stretching all the way back to Vask the Valorous in the time of legend. Their eyes beat down upon him from above, illuminated in the fiery hues of dusk, judging him. What have you done to restore our glory, Little Narcis? What have you done to make us proud again?
He unrolled the map of the middle north to locate Sira Zelaad, and his eyes glanced past the painful reminder of the expanse of Strata Vask. It still bore their name, but it was theirs in name only. The vast expanses of fruitful farmland and the rich mines full of precious metals and gems had long since been sold to cover the extravagant debts of his grandfather, Otho, and they had been forced to take up business in trading on the north coast near Harn’s End when Narcis was still a newborn. But there the reminders were for him every day. Every day he heard the self-pitying moans of his father, Felix, as he lamented the lost fortune that was rightfully his, squandered before he had a chance to act. Every day he endured the beatings of his father under the burning stares of the patriarchs of House Vask, now in a modest keep outside a provincial town.
But, as he often said to himself, opportunity was as fickle as a lady, and it needed to be seized and taken advantage of when it presented itself. And the hobgoblin siege was what he had been waiting for. This was his moment. This was his chance to reclaim his family’s honor and make the specter of Vask the Valorous rest easy again.
“Quinneth!” he shouted for his timid son.
“Yes, Father?” Quinneth answered from the room’s far corner. He had been lurking in the shadows.
“Make ready to send word to King Jory. Say we have three thousand… no, five thousand able-bodied men prepared to lead the assault if Kepala has need. Including my personal heavy cavalry, which I shall lead myself.”
“But Father, what cavalry?” Quinneth asked meekly.
A slap across the face was Quinneth’s only answer. “Do not answer back, boy! A cavalry was promised and a cavalry I shall deliver! You get on with the messaging and I shall set about the business of gathering my horsemen.”
Quinneth shuffled quickly from the room and disappeared down the main hall. Now Narcis found himself confronting the stares from above again. His eyes turned to Otho Vask, the man he had learned to hate. Though Otho had taken his own life before Narcis was old enough to remember him, he felt as though they had bickered innumerable times. Narcis met the stare of the foolish patriarch head on.
“Now I will show the world what a Vask can do,” he whispered, a lump forming in his throat. “I’ll show them all.”
The acquisition of the cavalry had well and truly drained the coffers of House Vask, as five hundred and twelve horses took a hefty price in feeding and equipping for war. The cavaliers were called from the surrounding nobility of the land, each house eagerly producing its most enthusiastic son looking to prove himself in the eyes of his family and the king. Every one of them champed at the bit to be seen draped in pewter and leather finery, brandishing sabers that gleamed like the noonday sun.
To train them he had recruited the talents of the knight Wallace Tillian, one of the foremost highwaymen-turned-soldiers in the kingdom. For a month, he had drilled the newly minted cavaliers, flattening fertile fields to let them practice their mounted war-making skills. Tillian had insisted the Duke train with his regiment, but the Duke flatly refused. “Would you have me dining with them and holding their hands whilst they shit? No, Sir Wallace, I shall keep my own station here and lead when the time is right,” came Narcis Vask’s reply.
As they watched the horsemen running down line after line of straw dummies, standing in for the hobgoblin army, Narcis placed a hand on Quinneth’s shoulder. “See here, Quinneth? This is how you want them to see you. Above them. In command. They will respect you that way. Do not give them any reason to ever see you as flawed or they will walk all over you, surely as we will walk over these monsters in battle.”
Quinneth saw his father’s armor, gleaming in the afternoon sun, and understood.
The word had come down from King Jory; Duke Vask was to command a support column, but the king himself would lead the attack. Narcis was furious. He tore the letter up three times and threw a pile of scraps to the ground behind him.
“How dare he? How dare he take all the glory for himself? I am the one bankrupting myself to have the finest forces in Kepala, but Jory gives that bumpkin from Arrain a named blade! And now I must keep company with these hog farmers and laborers because Jory wishes it so?”
Quinneth shrank from his father, as was his habit when the anger had taken him. “Father, Jory is king, after all. It’s not our place to…”
A kick from Narcis’ boot silenced young Quinneth. “No, boy. No! All his talk of free men and duty and honor are nothing to a Vask with a rightful claim and an obligation to take back what is his! I have the very honor of our blood to reclaim. And there you sit like a cowering girl, an apologist for the king’s failures. You are no son of mine.”
Quinneth stood up straight and looked his father in the face for the first time that day. “No Father! I am your only son and I will squire for you! I will be the one who is by your side when we win back our glory… for old Vask the Valorous and all the other ones, too! I will be there to help you win!”
Narcis regarded Quinneth with a critical eye, looking him up and down. He had indeed grown. Perhaps it was time to offer the boy a chance to be a man.
“You will be at my side, Quinneth. And you’d best not fail. I’ll give you the chance to prove that you’re worthy of my blood, yet.”
Quinneth’s pride practically lifted him off the floor.
The journey to Sira Zelaad was long, but the constant company of Saragossa the Bard at least made the trip amusing. Paid as handsomely as any of Vask’s more expensive cavaliers, he had been hired to sing songs of the bravery that was to come. The defeat of the enemy was a foregone conclusion if the Saragossa lyrics were to be believed.
Quinneth rode with his father as closely as possible, sensing that as Narcis was to be the center of the action, he’d need to stay near to grab any of the glory for himself. And truly the only thing worse than being beaten and humiliated by his father was to be forgotten. Quinneth knew that to stay close was to stay in his father’s mind.
They approached the field of battle, and saw the enemy forces stretched out before them. Jory’s twelve thousand-strong center column was nearly a match for half the horde besieging Sira Zelaad, and the supporting columns of his and Wodan’s forces on Jory’s flanks did little to even the score. A cold sweat broke over Narcis Vask’s brow. He willed the thoughts of failure away. No, this was his day to win. This day he would show up the low-born provincial who had curried the king’s favor, and make the Vask name mean something again. He stirred in his saddle. Far before him on the field of battle, the golden armored figure of King Jory stepped to the front of his line and barked a challenge to the enemy. Narcis rolled his eyes as the enemy responded with what he knew was the only way these savages could, with a gibbering mockery. Could they even understand what Jory was saying?
As the agreed upon battle plan commenced, Duke Vask’s forces broke to the left of the hobgoblin horde to act as counterpoint to Wodan Veld’s right-hand column. Wodan only needed to hold the enemy there while Narcis led his men to ride roughshod over them. He sensed his destiny was coming swiftly upon him now. He rode to the front of his column and pulled his horse beside Sir Wallace.
“Thank you, Sir Wallace, but you may fall back. I shall be leading us today.”
Wallace looked worried. “But my lord, you haven’t drilled with the men the way I have. They haven’t learned to heed your command yet, sir.”
Narcis Vask removed a glove and struck Sir Wallace across the face with it. “There, good sir,” spat Narcis, “Now they will know who is in charge.”
Sir Wallace gave Narcis Vask a stoic look, nodded, and withdrew.
Narcis looked back to the five hundred-strong cavalry behind him and raised his voice. “Today, men, we will win victory! Today we will bring glory to ourselves and show them that the name Vask is a force to be reckoned with!”
The duke looked around for Quinneth, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. His pulse quickened. No matter now, he thought. Now there was only this moment, and he was rushing headlong to victory. The war horn from the front lines blew and Duke Narcis Vask raised his saber high above his head and gave the command to charge.
The thundering cavalry was like a deafening war drum to him, spurring him on. He sighted the infamous commander of the hobgoblin army, Stral’d Thratch. The imposing beast was standing before him in the distance atop a small hill, surrounded by a band of elite warriors. He pointed his charging column straight at his enemy and crashed into the enemy lines with a sickening screech of whinnying horses, metal on metal, and hoof on bone.
At first, the hobgoblins withered like dry weeds before the assault of his horsemen. His gleaming cavalry was mowing down the enemy with almost no resistance. He swung his saber left and right at challengers before him, making his way nearly halfway to the enemy commander. He let out a whoop of excitement. He felt unstoppable as his wave of destruction careened forward over the enemies who were no match for his men, straight to meet Thratch in single combat.
He saw a line of hobgoblins before Thratch close ranks and brace itself. Narcis barked a command to his cavaliers to charge straight at them, and they followed. As he charged forward into the enemy line, he then saw them raising their longspears toward him as they approached. NO! he thought, but it was too late to slow or break. Their only chance was to go forward, over them, grinding them beneath their heels He spurred his horse on.
When he reached his braced enemy, he could see the eyes of Thratch staring him down, and he kicked his horse on to vault over the entrenched hobgoblin line. For a second, he felt like he was flying straight over them and on to his destiny, until his horse let out a whinny and halted abruptly before the line. Narcis was flung forward, off of his horse and into the mud. He landed with a heavy thud on his back. Over and around him he could see his cavalry charging forward, but rather than running down the enemy infantry, they were skewered one by one on the braced spears of the commander’s guard. He looked on in disbelief, as though it were part of a nightmare. The horses one by one either broke against the enemy line like waves, or turned and ran, retreating as swiftly from battle as they had charged into it. Narcis screamed and held a muddy palm to his head. How could this be happening?
Then he saw it just beyond the hill: Wodan Veld had appeared on the flank of Stral’d Thratch and called him into battle. The commander turned to confront the common man and began to unleash a furious attack that was absorbed by Wodan like wind on stone.
“Father!” he heard Quinneth calling out to him as he rode beside Saragossa the Bard through the swath cut by the retreating cavalry. “Father, I’m here to save you!”
Quinneth offered an outstretched hand and Narcis hesitated. “Father, we have to get you out of here!” Quinneth said with hushed desperation. Narcis took his son’s hand and strained up onto the saddle behind him. Quinneth kicked his horse and they followed their retreating cavalry, advancing to the rear.
Narcis turned back to look to the field of battle once again, only just in time to see Wodan Veld cutting the enemy commander in two. He heard the rube bellowing something into the air at the enemy horde, something proud and heroic. Narcis whimpered and lowered his head, collapsing into unconsciousness.
The road home was quiet and bitter. Though the foot soldiers under the command of the duke were jubilant and energized by their victory against the enemy horde, all Narcis could taste was iron and ashes. He could not get the image of the boorish Wodan snatching the glory of his victory from his grasp as he cut down the enemy commander. Over and over it played in his mind, being thrown from his horse and forced to watch as his men died on hobgoblin spikes and the undeserving commoner took all the glory for himself. Narcis knew he had been robbed once again of his rightful place in history, and the incompetence of others had stymied his destiny.
He had taken a seat atop the wagon reserved for the officers’ wine and provisions and was busy trying to numb the pain of his humiliation with generous helpings of Strata Treva’s finest. He heard a creaking on the wagon behind him and turned. Quinneth.
“Father, sir, it’s been three days and you’ve scarcely said a word. Are you hurt?” Quinneth said, tapping his father lightly on the shoulder.
Narcis turned to face his son, and the rage burned deep within him. “A word? You would like a word with me, you whinging sack of frog spawn? Where were you, Quinneth? Where were you in our hour of glory, boy?”
“I.. I was left behind with Saragossa when the men started charging. I’m sorry! I didn’t know how to make my horse go any faster. Maybe if I had been able to train with Sir Wallace…”
A bare fist smashed into Quinneth’s face. Narcis began to unleash a savage series of drunken kicks and punches that reduced his son to a curled-up ball atop a heap of dried meat. “How… DARE… you!” the duke said, punctuating each word with a strike.
“I only tried to help you, Father! I saved you, Father! I saved you!” Quinneth whimpered as he endured his father’s beatings.
“Saved me? Saved me from what? From fighting the savages on foot and claiming victory for us? Saved me from at last lifting the shame from the Vask house? Saved me from honor and glory? Quinneth, you are a thief. You have taken from me that what was rightly mine, just as Otho stole my fortune from me. Sure as Wodan took the sword that was rightfully mine. It was all supposed to be mine,” Narcis rasped and collapsed into a heap, his head in his hands.
“You’re right, Father!” Quinneth whispered as he came closer to his father, cringing from the next strike that could come at any moment, “They’ve all robbed us. It’s US that have been wronged. Anyone would know that a cretin like Wodan Veld would never have beaten the Warlord Thratch without you softening him up first! But I can help you! I can help fix all of it. You’ll see, Father. You’ll see. I promise. I don’t care what it takes, I’ll make you proud.”
Narcis pulled his head up from his hands, his eyes red, and looked at his soft young son. He laughed a high, mocking laugh. “Yes, young Quinneth. I guess we will see.”
The duke’s laughter echoed through the forest.
Narcis Vask grew more and more bitter. He had turned to drink in the years after the great battle, and would often go days without leaving his bed chambers. His most recent wife, Florixia, had taken leave of his company and gone to stay with another minor land baron near Lake Tillian. Narcis barely noticed the day she left.
By necessity, Quinneth had begun to run the day-to-day business of maintaining the house more and more. He had begun to grow into a true heir of the name Vask, acting aloof to underlings and capriciously silencing with violence anyone who would challenge his authority in running his business.
The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon had come, and again the Vask name had been snubbed by the House of Corin. History liked winners, it seemed, and it had been some time since the Vask name had a victory attached to it.
A week after the festival, a exhausted messenger arrived in the hall bearing the news of the slaughter of House Corin and the rise of a new power to the throne. He told of a new breed of invincible armored soldiers and a dark pall that had fallen over Sira Kepala. Quinneth rushed to his father’s bedside to share the news.
As Quinneth whispered the news to the once proud duke, a smile crept over the old man’s face. He rose from his bed slowly and uttered, “Get me a pen.”
The remnants of the duke’s cavalry rode at a desperate pace for Sira Kepala. Narcis uttered hardly a word to Quinneth, who this time stayed firmly anchored to his father’s side. Two hundred horsemen reached the capitol in just under a fortnight.
A darkness seemed to hang over the once bright spires of Sira Kepala. They could see it in the distance as they crossed the last hill before the walls of the city. A new power was indeed holding sway over the kingdom.
As the cavalry approached the city gates, rows and rows of gleaming, armor-clad soldiers stood silent sentry over the battlements and before the gates. Narcis brought his column to a halt fifty yards before the gates.
Seven black-clad figures stood before the gates, projecting a darkness so deep that it seemed to swallow light. Duke Vask slowly walked his horse the last fifty yards to the gate alone. He stood before the seven figures sitting as tall in his saddle as he could. He drew his sword, and dismounted his horse.
As he stepped before the seven, sword in hand, the lead figure spoke in a voice that was as cold as the bottom of the sea. “Who brings arms against the Imperator Verower Villilar Kotu?”
Duke Narcis Vask exhaled, dropped to one knee, and pointed the tip of his sword into the ground before him. “I am Narcis of House Vask, and I am your humble servant,” he said in a proud voice for all the world to hear.
A decade later, House Vask had once again risen in wealth. Not with the gold of the old kings, but the platinum of the new imperator. This so-called tyrant that had garnered the ill will of so many of his subjects had made Narcis proud again. Now he had prestige, sycophants coming from far and wide to curry his favor, and Quinneth, grown into the very image of himself as a young man, had a job enforcing the collection of the royal tributes. Now all tributes of food, lumber, and flesh passed through House Vask on their way to the capital.
Narcis had everything a humble Duke could want, but there was still something that had left him feeling unfulfilled. There was still a faint echo that would haunt his sleep and keep him questioning his status as a master of men. Something from the old days he could not leave alone. He called for Quinneth.
“Father, you’re looking well,” Quinneth lied with a smile.
“Son, I have everything in the world that I could want, and yet I am unpleased.”
“And what would it take to please you, sir? Name it.”
“Do you recall that witless dullard that we fought beside during the breaking of the siege?”
“Ah, yes, the old Veld fellow. He’s toiling in obscurity in his backward village I’m sure. What of it?”
“They still possess a weighty supply of food that is rightfully the Lord Kotu’s. And they still possess a legendary blade that should’ve been ours an age ago. Go to Arrain, and collect his Lordship’s tribute. And return Windsong to its rightful place among us.”
“It shall be done, Father!” Quinneth said, laughing. A brightness came over his face. The father joined his son in a cackle that echoed through the great hall and out into the night.