According to Trinitian history, the dragonlord Hyperion had been born on the 'day of the longest night' during year one of the Dragon Age -- the same year when the nomadic dragonkind made landfall upon this world. Twelve centuries later, this youthful draconic messiah would 'save the world from its sins' by sacrificing his own life to shut down the Abyssal Rift, gateway to the demonic realm where all the evils of the universe manifested in physical form.
It came as no surprise that the image of Hyperion casting the unnamed ritual -- later named the True Cross -- would become the most pervasive symbol of the Trinitian Church, or that this historic birthday would mark the second holiest day of the year for its faithful.
That birthday was only three days away. Yet despite the holy time, Kaede found herself standing in an empty field eight kilopaces away from the city with the assembled Knights Phantom of the Ghost Riders. It had taken both days since meeting with King Leopold before Pascal could conclude his obligations in Nordkreuz. The landgrave had done what he could to kick off the recovery efforts, and Kaede had spent much of this time helping assess local talents to whom they could entrust the daunting task of rebuilding.
Now, a fresh cold front had arrived from the north. Amidst the light flurry of snow, a galloping mass of phantom steeds and wagons rode out of the sun in the east. But as Kaede stared at the distant dawn, she pondered just how exactly did soldiers celebrate a white Christmas in wartime.
Well, half of her was wondering -- it helped to take her mind off things. The other half was too busy being distracted by a cramping stomach as she struggled not to double over in pain.
The Period of Christmas... God I hate you, she blasphemed in the safety of her own mind.
It was almost daunting to realize that roughly one-quarter of all women suffered through this on the jolliest week of the year.
"Kaede did you take some tea before leaving?"
The familiar, soothing voice over telepathy lead Kaede to turn about. Her eyes soon met Ariadne's supportive smile just a few paces away.
The Duchess-to-be and newly named commander of the Ghost Riders stood next to another white pegasus. Her flowing pink hair and the burning-red fabrics of her open-front uniform skirt billowed in the lakeside breeze. Beneath her collar was a newly minted Knight's Cross and the rank insignias of a Major, as she had been promoted twice in a row for receiving proper Knight Phantom status.
"No. I've only been drinking it before sleep," Kaede pressed a forearm rune containing one of the Telepathy spells to reply.
"Have some with your meals this week as well. Parzifal had asked some of the commoner medics what they did to relieve menstrual cramps. They said that chamomile tea helps, especially with ginger, peppermint, or raspberry leaves added to it."
She could tell?
The Samaran girl's eyes opened wide in response, eliciting a sympathetic nod from the noblewoman whose blessing of magic meant she was above the commoners' problem of monthly period pains.
"It's been enough days since your last time. I took a guess since you looked like something was physically upsetting you. I'm guessing you have a thirty-day cycle then?"
Kaede couldn't respond. Given the importance of the female bodily rhythm, she really should have been tracking her cycle. But after the last time, she had almost forgotten entirely about it until this morning. Had her undergarments not come with self-cleaning enchantments, she would have made a mess in Pascal's bed.
Can't even keep up with the least time consuming of 'feminine routines', she thought with a heavy sigh. So much for getting used to being a girl.
"Assuming it stays consistent," Kaede muttered, remembering Parzifal's warning that many girls also had irregular cycles.
As informative the conversation was, it only focused her attention on the cramps and made them feel worse.
Thankfully for Kaede, the reason for their wait soon arrived as shadow hooves touched down upon the snowy ground. The hundred steeds of the understrength Falcon Force Knights Phantom were followed by light wagons from the 36th Logistics Company -- these vehicles drawn by two Phantom Steeds apiece and stayed afloat thanks to Levitation spells.
They were why she stood waiting far outside the city: to minimize the chances of Gabriel's spies knowing just how much support the Princess really received.
Four members of the King's Black Eagles also rode within the formation, as Pascal had requested a squad to help with intelligence gathering. His unspoken goal was to keep King Leopold informed through sources that His Majesty would trust beyond any doubt, thereby transforming the expedition's successes into further military support.
It was a double-edged sword, as even the closest of allies spied upon one another. Yet as Kaede picked the familiar sight of a petite dhampir waving from within the formation, she couldn't help but return a smile.
"Welcome to Nordkreuz Sir," Pascal began as he lead the salute towards the highest ranking officer of the expedition.
Colonel Walther von Mackensen was a square-faced, stiff-jawed man who appeared to be in his early forties. His height must be nearing two meters (almost 6'5"), for the colonel towered over his cavalrymen even as they remained sitting on their mounts. A pair of neatly trimmed handlebar mustaches accentuated his stern countenance, and the piercing blue gaze beneath his chestnut hair felt as keen as any saber.
Apart from the black-on-burning-red uniform of the Knights Phantom, he also wore his iconic hat -- tall and made of black bearskin with the skulls and crossbones emblem. It was matched by every man in the Falcon Force company, which gave birth to the nickname their enemies knew best: the Death's Head.
"Major von Moltewitz. Your Highness," the Colonel nodded to both Pascal and Sylviane, his expression showing not the least bit of change despite coming face-to-face with the royal princess he captured a decade ago.
"It is an honor to be working with your Sir, and I apologize for any offense the political arrangements might have caused," Pascal conveyed humbly in a display of just how much he respected this man.
"That I am to take my orders from a mere Major?"
The Colonel's smile came out more like a sneer, despite his utter lack of malice.
"Your father would be proud of the work you have done, both in Skagen and here in Nordkreuz," von Mackensen spoke in a low bass that carried his own version of the aristocratic drawl. "So long as you continue to display qualities worthy of your blood and lineage, I do not mind taking orders from a junior. But make no mistake that I shall not hesitate to disregard a foolish order."
"I shall strive to meet your expectations," came Pascal's sincere reply.
It became clear that this man respect two traits above all, although Kaede had to guess which one would win out in a contest between the two: competence or blood?
The answer to that only grew more complicated as the old cavalrymen turned towards Ariadne:
"Major von Zimmer-Manteuffel," he uttered her second surname with clear, unmasked contempt. "Although we are both Phantom commanders, rank and seniority dictates that I shall be your direct superior and you shall obey my orders. Is that understood?"
No wonder Pascal had picked him during the 'Manteuffel Incident', Kaede thought. He must consider 'treason' the eighth and ultimate sin.
She certainly did not miss that von Mackensen proved as shrewd as he was belligerent. Within moments of their meeting, he had already laid the basis for undermining Pascal's command should the young lord fail to meet his standards. Given their difference in both rank and reputation, Kaede had little doubt whom the soldiers would obey.
Meanwhile, the noble lady herself managed -- just barely -- to swallow her own pride and anguish as she returned a perfect salute.
"Your Highness," the Colonel's penetrating gaze swept back to Sylviane once more. "Regardless of my appraisal of the Major, you have my word of honor that I shall see our objectives through. The Falcon Force is one of most esteemed formations of Weichsel. We shall fight to the last man to defend your honor and uphold the rights of succession as ordained by the Holy Father himself."
The severity of his every demeanor left no doubts among his listeners: this was no declaration made for diplomatic posturing or foreign relations. It was an oath sworn by a diehard adherent of the traditional military caste who truly believed in each and every word.
Taken aback, the Princess scarcely had time to say "thank you" before her fiancé replied with beaming confidence:
"I would not worry about that. We shall make our enemies fight to the last man first."
----- * * * -----
"Hey Cecylia, I thought you had told me that Hyperion armies didn't use firearms-- I mean black powder armaments? What about those mortars then?"
The journey ahead was long and quiet, as everyone weaved their own web of telepathy while tireless mounts carried them across the clouds. To keep herself occupied, Kaede had asked Pascal to link the dhampir Black Eagle trainee into their private channel, which also connected to Sylviane.
It was a blessing that speaking in telepathy did not require any movement from her jaws, as her teeth were clenched to endure the cramps that seized her abdomen. Kaede had turned up the heat through her enchanted undergarments' temperature controls to help relieve the pain. The cold front from the north might have brought low clouds that masked the expedition's movement into Rhin-Lotharingie. But the feel of freezing winds gusting past her thin body only seemed to worsen her agony.
Why couldn't the past week have been 'that time of the month'? At least I could've stayed in bed, she complained bitterly in thought as she awaited the topic of distraction.
"I believe I mentioned that elite and specialist troops used some black powder weapons," Cecylia's mental voice returned in her soft soprano. "The mortars are considered 'specialist weapons', just like the Knights Phantom's grenades."
Kaede hadn't even noticed until now, thanks to the auto-translation magic Pascal worked into the familiar bond. But the Imperial language word for 'mortar' literally meant 'arcing grenade launcher', three words slammed together in true Germanic fashion.
"But unlike the grenades, these aren't hidden inside some warded extra-dimensional space most of the time," Kaede countered. "So what makes them acceptable as effective weapons when other black powder technologies aren't?"
This time, it was Pascal who answered:
"It is not their effectiveness that is questioned; it is their reliability. Mortars make only a fraction of the Weichsel artillery forces, most of which are still equipped with traditional torsion siege engines. Their destructive capabilities are a blessing for battles, especially against troops in heavy armor. But as a specialist, support weapon, their limited deployment also means their loss could not decide a battle by itself."
"It's probably harder to grasp since you're from a world without magic," Cecylia patiently added. "But black powder's vulnerability to the elements means it's extremelysusceptible. The smallest ember causes it to combust; the slightest spark ignites it; a mere splash of water renders it useless -- these are all effects that even the mostbasic of spells could conjure."
Kaede knew that there were many modern explosive compounds that mitigated or even avoided these pitfalls. But of course, since Hyperion never embraced the earliest form of gunpowder, they also lacked the incentive to research more stable blasting compounds. It had taken centuries on Earth before Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, the first 'safe' explosive; on Hyperion, this process could take millenniums.
"But you also have defensive spells and wards to counteract that..."
"Sure, except most of those spells -- like the often used Legion Resistance -- only reduced the damage dealt by elemental magic; they don't negate it outright," Cecylia went on. "I mean there are spells that can, but those spells are also one, harder to cast and two, drain more of our precious ether reserves -- which is a fairly big deal when the Legion spellword duplicates the same effect across an entire squad or platoon."
It was one of those arguments that reminded Kaede: in war, or perhaps society in general, everything had to be considered in scale. It wasn't enough that a requirement could be met; the solution must also satisfy the objective in quantity to be truly effective.
"Soldiers also have body armor and padded clothes to help absorb the lingering damage that passes through, not to mention people could endure minor burns. But what do you think happens to the infantrymen who are trying to load a black powder projectile?"
Kaede shivered as that horrific explosion during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz replayed in her mind's eye: the sight of a fireball engulfing dozens of comrades, of mangled bodies, severed limbs, and burning carcasses. Scenarios like that didn't just kill the unfortunate troopers caught by the blast either; it also demoralized entire armies and made soldiers distrust the very weapons held within their hands.
The Knights Phantom were elites with exceptional gear, discipline, and morale. They could be entrusted to use the most dangerous and destructive armaments for equivalently high returns. But the average soldier or conscript farmer? Individuals who quaked in their boots from 'just' the looming death of a massed cavalry charge?
...They would desert their weapons and run.
"Combine this with the fact that black powder couldn't even be stored in large quantities," Cecylia continued. "I mean: destroying ten thousand arrows? That takes work, or at least powerful spells that few mages could cast. But ten thousand stones of black powder? Even a child could light a match. Then what do you do with those 'firearms'? Use them as clubs?"
"It'd be worse than a Lotharin army without arrows," Sylviane commented dryly.
The Rhin-Lotharingie military was heavily dependent on its massed archery, courtesy of a national sport that taught every self-respecting man how to shoot and hunt. The common recruit also came with axes, mostly of the treefelling variety. But without ammunition and forced to engage as light infantry, even a victory would leave the army in ruins.
An army that emphasized firearms only made this worse, as the Swedish Carolean Army of the 17th century learned that even muskets with bayonets were a poor replacement for proper melee weapons like the sword.
On Earth, early firearms like the arquebus were unreliable, inaccurate, and had a dismal effective range. Their greatest benefit over archery was that a conscripted farmer could be expected to become proficient within weeks of training rather than years. But on Hyperion, where massed deployment of gunpowder troops posed both unique logistical challenges and significant tactical vulnerabilities, it was unsurprising that the military establishment kept to their traditional ways.
"If that's the case, then what makes mortars so special that they could at least make a limited deployment?"
"There are two main benefits to mortars," Pascal began. "The first is that, like all other grenades, mortar shells are encapsulated. The casing wouldn't stop proper assault spells from detonating the powder, but it at least offers some protection from fire, and more importantly -- the weather."
Pascal had actually shown Kaede a Weichsel 'tandem-charge mortar round' yesterday. Within the thin iron casing were two cylinders of black powder separated by an air gap, held apart by light springs and secured with safety pins. When a shell was dropped into the mortar tube, its momentum would force the upper container to fall onto the lower one. This drove a flint ignition rod into the lower powder chamber where it scraped against a sharply angled steel file. The sparks would then detonate the lower charge, hurling the shell's remnants into the air while igniting the timed fuse to its upper powder chamber. Mortar gunners could even adjust this fuse through a screw on the side, with veterans aiming for the ideal 'airborne burst' where shrapnel rounds exploded just overhead the target for maximum mayhem.
It was an impressive design, despite its crude triggering mechanism. On Earth, it would take until the 19th Century -- half a millennium after the first arquebus saw mass deployment -- before the percussion cap was developed to allow for sealed cartridges that could fire reliably in any weather. Yet on Hyperion, the advancement of grenades had already bypassed that and went straight onto the modern 'tube mortars' first invented in World War I.
"The other benefit is that it is an indirect artillery weapon," Pascal highlighted the high trajectory firing arc that defined mortars. "This means we could fire it from within trenches and deep pits, where they would not only be hidden but also protected from most attack spells. A Resistance Screen could even be applied on top of the pit to protect the weapon and its crew from overhead spell bursts."
Kaede nodded in acknowledgment, her curiosity finally satisfied enough to move onto the next question:
"So apart from grenades, launchers, and flamethrowers, are there any other combustible weapons that Hyperion actually uses?"
"Satchel charges? I guess they're just oversized pillow grenades, hehe," Cecylia mused openly.
"Same with the bangalore torpedo javelins that Garona Hippo-Cuirassiers use," Sylv added, making the auto-translation magic adapt yet more foreign terms to Kaede's dictionary.
It was Pascal who finally found the answer:
Without proper firing pin technology, Kaede doubted Hyperion mines could self-detonate. But that never stopped the partisans of World War II from rigging manually-triggered minefields to devastating effect.
"Oh, and the Imperials have rocket carts that could launch salvos up to four dozen."
Pascal appended it as though it were an afterthought, but Kaede's eyes bulged upon hearing it:
"They have Katyusha Rocket Launchers!?"
"They took that idea from the eastern Dawn Imperium, actually," Cecylia clarified.
"It was impressive for about two battles," Pascal commented in a voice that was anything but impressed. "Before... I cannot remember the name, but she created a counterspell by adapting the self-guided Ether Seeker, which simply destroyed the heat-propelled rockets in mid-flight."
Once again, human ingenuity proved that magical and physical technology mixed in ways that would alter the development of both sciences.
----- * * * -----
The first day had proved uneventful, as the Knights Phantom rode over a thousand kilopaces to reach their planned campsite -- a natural spring deep inside one of the many forests that covered the Rhin-Lotharingie landscape. But on the second day, as Kaede continuously updated the Vintersvend Expedition Map, she would notice the first obstacle to their plans.
Just fifty kilopaces ahead was the expedition's first staging point. But instead of unmarked ruins atop a barren hill, Kaede's magical map marked the target coordinates as the de Villars encampment.
Her first reaction was to double-check the location with Pascal. They were correct.
...Which meant they had a problem.
"There must be at least five hundred troops there if the map could detect and mistake it for a large village," Kaede noted based on her past observation, when she had compared a scan of Nordkreuz's surroundings to the local maps.
"The encampment is not named by unit designation either, which means that it is probably a patchwork force -- some hastily assembled battlegroup named after its commander," Pascal surmised. "Good chance they are here on orders from the pretender Gabriel, since he's the one having difficulty making the various formations obey him."
"You're right," Sylviane agreed. "A regional lord would send a full unit, not a hodgepodge that doesn't even have a battalion name." Then, with rising concern: "But that would mean he anticipated me coming this way."
The Princess left unsaid that hundreds more men could lay waiting in ambush just ahead.
"He could also be covering all the likely routes," added Hans Ostergalen after Pascal weaved the intelligence analyst into the telepathy web. "Duke Gabriel's leading commander is Count van Coehoorn, a defensive theoretician who pays great attention to detail even in his everyday life. My guess is that he probably has all the likely routes covered. But Gabriel's main force -- his loyal troops from Fryslân -- would probably be kept as a reserve. Given his precarious hold on power, I doubt he'll deploy it until he ascertains Your Highness' intentions."
"So you think this is just a screening force then?" Sylviane inquired.
"More like a picket: to deter if you're few in numbers, to raise alarms if you come in force," Hans replied. "Gabriel's first priority must be to locate your whereabouts now that we've left Nordkreuz."
"In either case, we should know in a moment when Reynald gives me an update," Pascal spoke of the redheaded Winterslayer, who scouted ahead of the main formation with three of his men.
"Reynald estimates the camp to be around six hundred men," Pascal passed the word several minutes later. "The soldiers are also constructing wooden cabins, so they seem to be assigned here as a long-term picket."
After all, only the aristocratic elite -- or at least wealthy cavalrymen -- could afford the comfort of expandable cabins during a campaign. The average commoner had to suffer a miserable tent.
"Much shorter once they pass word to Alis Avern that we came through," Colonel von Mackensen warned. His words followed closely by Hans:
"And the next stone circle isn't for another twelve-hundred kilopaces, assuming Gabriel didn't picket that one as well."
"You are suggesting that we annihilate them?"
Pascal sounded wary as he spoke. But the Colonel? His voice held only stern determination, as though the enemy was just another faceless foe instead of the Princess' own countrymen in a civil war:
"We should wait until past midnight before assaulting their camp. With our firepower, we shall overrun them before they even get a Farspeak link online."
"Sylv?" Pascal called out to his fiancée, who had remained speechless for the past minute.
"Sorry..." came a sheepish reply. "I'm trying to remember... I feel like I've met a Major from the de Villars family before."
For several moments the telepathy chatroom fell silent. Then, it was Lady Mari who spoke:
"Lady Lynette de Villars. Your Highness attended her marriage ceremony three years ago."
"She's a Brython from Ceredigion then?" Sylviane noted her name.
"Yes. I believe Your Highness had asked her why she decided to marry a nobleman from across the country, and she replied that she was 'tired of Ceredigion pretending it wasn't part of the Rhin-Lotharingie Empire'."
Kaede almost snorted. Even without being an island nation like Great Britain, the Kingdom of Ceredigion seemed to stay aloof of its obligations to the greater union; its leaders would feign detachment from the Rhin-Lotharingie collective whenever it benefited them.
"Why would somebody like that bow to a pretender from Fryslân," Hans puzzled out loud.
"Because Gabriel commands the authority of the capital at Alis Avern," Sir Robert pitched in. "Just because someone is loyal to the country doesn't mean they are loyal to a specific crown."
"Then, it's clear... Pascal, what do you think?"
The Princess somehow expected her fiancé to know her plans for the next step, which he did:
"It will be risky."
Yet his tone of confidence seemed the exact opposite, as though he was encouraging her on.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Sylviane seemed to take a deep breathe as she spoke to herself. "I have to start somewhere."
Before anyone could object, the Princess raised her voice to the crowd:
"All knights! Form up! And follow me!"
----- * * * -----
Lynette stared at the mossy granite of the stone circle as she sat outside her expanding cabin. For a noblewoman from Ceredigion, this was probably the least impressive stone circle she had seen. The formation was little more than a ring of two dozen jagged, uneven rocks, reaching up to between knee to chest height.
But in the end, size didn't matter, only the function it served.
The stone circles had many nicknames: faerie rings, Tylwyth crossroads, Sidhe pathways, et cetera. They were ruins of a bygone era, infrastructure built by an ancient race. The era recorded by the Book of Invasions had long past. The Faerie Lords had returned to their otherworld realm, but the legacy they left behind would linger on.
Nor were the stones mere decoration. They were built according to the ley-lines: some at major junctions, now enveloped in cities and citadels; others at mystical locations of exceptional magical power, sacred to followers of the Old Faiths. The one she guarded lay at an unusual intersection -- an outbound fork in the local ley-line.
Their purpose? Transit hubs to an ancient magic, an art lost to most.
Most, but not all.
A faekissed Princess of the Empire, Lynette thought to herself. A true scion of the otherworld.
The late emperor Geoffroi had married the daughter of some obscure Count, so it had gone unnoticed by most. Yet through her, the royal line of House de Gaetane acquired the lingering bloodlines of the ancient Sidhe.
But the Princess? She was an Autumnborn. They tended to favor acumen, though not as logical as their cold and stoic winter brethren. They also leaned towards envy, though never as passionate as their summer kin.
...And most famous of all, they had awful, terrible springtime allergies that even magic failed to suppress. If memories served, the Princess looked downright miserable during the outdoor ceremony of Lynette's traditional Ceredigion wedding, in May.
I really should have noticed back then.
But Lynette didn't. She didn't realize Sylviane's lineage until fresh orders arrived from Alis Avern. Why else would the new, self-proclaimed emperor want her to camp atop ancient ruins that only the Faekissed could still activate?
A paid genealogist took less than an hour to ascertain her thoughts.
Lynette was raised under the cross. She upheld the Holy Father just like most of modern Ceredigion. But within their hearts and memories, there would always be a soft spot for the Old Faiths and the ancient Faerie Lords.
It was an odd tradition. The Sidhe -- or 'Tylwyth', as they were called in the Brython language -- were anything but just. The Seelie Court proved impulsive and chaotic, while the Unseelie Court stood callous and demanding. The Faerie Lords were legendary in many aspects, but being good rulers was not one of them.
It certainly didn't help that they occasionally kidnapped human children to be raised among their own kind, leaving behind a changeling surprise for the poor mothers.
Nevertheless, the common peasant would be ecstatic to have an empress of Sidhe blood, however diluted it became after countless generations. But Lynette was the educated daughter of an Count; she had to ask herself the important question first:
Would a Faekissed -- an immature, twenty-year-old at that -- truly be good for the present dilemmas facing Rhin-Lotharingie?
Gabriel might be a pretender, but he was also shrewd and cunning. His charisma had seduced even the Papal Inquisition, whose templar forces he threw into the grinder like pawns. Even his organizational prowess had proved itself in seizing the crown, as nobody in Alis Avern had even realized before he dealt the fatal blow.
A pretender who could best an emperor monikered 'the Great'. Perhaps he really was the Holy Father's gift in Rhin-Lotharingie's hour of greatest need.
But if that's the case, then why is he just sitting there!? Why isn't he heading south, toward the front lines that pushes ever closer to my homeland?
Lynette still had her fists clenched when the encampment's northeastern sentry called out:
"INCOMING AIRBORNE FORMATION!"
Then, fear pierced the warning tone as the cry turned shrill.
Weichsel might be a nominal ally of the Empire now, but no veteran would forget the terror that struck deep into Rhin-Lotharingie during the War of Imperial Succession ten years ago.
...Especially not when Knights Phantom dove down from the clouds behind the white-blue flames of an Oriflamme Paladin. Leading the charge was Crown Princess Sylviane and her armigers, the crème de la crème of Rhin-Lotharingie's knights.
Lynette could feel her nape hairs stand up in cold sweat as she pulled her shield and flail off her armored back.
"FORM UP! AIR DEFENSE!"
She had no air cavalry, no rangers, only archers led by a handful of her own armigers.
She had accepted this mission because she had no intention of defying the capital. But now, she wasn't sure it was the right choice.
Against an Oriflamme and over a hundred Phantoms, her men didn't stand a chance.
But to her dying moment, Lynette would never be as surprised as when the burning chevron that soared straight towards her -- a scalpel about to take the head of the commander -- shot back up in an acrobatic loop before braking to a hover above the camp.
"SOLDIERS OF RHIN-LOTHARINGIE!" came the Princess' magically amplified shout.
Hundreds of bows rose. Countless arrows were ready to fire. But the Cerulean Princess paid them no attention as she address the camp with all the authority of a true sovereign.
She did not yell following those opening words. She did not bellow for attention or gesture with melodramatic theatrics. Instead, her magnified voice began slow, calm, and methodical; even as it rang with the confidence of the Holy Father himself:
"I am Crown Princess Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane. But I come to you today, not as an aspirant for the throne, or royalty demanding of your obedience, or even a commandant calling upon your service. I stand before you, as a woman of the Lotharin plains, a daughter of her forests, a comrade to all who stand shoulder to shoulder on the front lines of our faith, and most of all -- a paladin sworn to uphold her duty to kingdom, empire, and the Holy Father."
The entire camp had fallen to an eerie silence. Even the birds of the nearby woods fell quiet, their attention enthralled by the burning figure in the skies.
"Even as I speak before you now, the evil hordes of Cataliya advances through our countryside," Princess Sylviane then made the first gesture, her finger pointed sharply to the southwest as she gradually built up her tone. "Those slaves of corrupt tyrants from the demon-tainted continent know no honor, no faith. They were trained from boyhood to obey, to submit as blindly to their immoral masters as they do to their false god. They follow orders without question -- whether they be to pillage the homes of our countrymen; to slit the throats of our sons and ravish the innocence of our daughters; even to desecrate the holiness of our faith and the grace of our Lord and Savior who died for the world's sins."
Lynette had yet to hear any tales of atrocities from the south. Unlike her simple-minded soldiers, she would not be so easily agitated by such an eloquent canvas of blood and debauchery.
But Her Highness did prove a point: the Cataliyan Ghulams were raised as slave-soldiers before given their freedom upon entering the professional ranks. These were men who knew no fear and harbored no ethics. Under a chivalrous lord, they might maintain discipline and stay their hand. But it would take only one order, one sinful moment of man, before the tears of women and the blood of men ran a new river to the sea.
Unfortunately, humans sinned aplenty, especially among the infamous decadence of the south.
Without independence, without both military power and legal authority, the various Lotharin cultures would have no way to defend themselves. They would be just another subjugated people, prostrated before the whims of foreign foes.
"The Caliphate comes with chains and yokes to enslave our society, our culture, our faith." The Princess then closed a fist before her chest: "Our nation sits upon the brink of disaster. Our land calls for our every aid! Tens of thousands have answered! Yet even as they drench the fields in foreign blood, the armies of this so-called 'Khalifa' continue to struggle, to advance, to threaten our families, our lands, our way of life! In this titanic struggle for the very existence of our identity, we must unite, to turn and face our common foe! Not to squabble among ourselves for crowns and power and gold!"
From the corner of her eyes, Lynette could see that all but a small fraction of her soldiers had completely forgotten about their weapons; their bows now hung loosely to one side as their spellbound stares transfixed themselves upon the Oriflamme Princess. Many, like her, even nodded along in agreement, embers of patriotic zeal burning within their eyes.
In the span of just moments, the charisma of this twenty-year-old girl had enraptured the thoughts of several hundred men.
"It is for this reason that I come before you," Her Highness continued on, her rising fervor working itself up into a shout once more. "Our ally, King Leopold of Weichsel, warden of the Trinitian March, has pledged his support in the name of the Holy Father! His first wave of men and supplies ride with me, to reinforce our southern lines which so desperately need all aid! We come before you for passage, to gate south for the salvation of our realm! I care not for whom your loyalties are sworn to. But if you have any pride left as a protector of Rhin-Lotharingie, YOU WILL STAY OUT OF OUR WAY!"
For a brief second, Lynette felt the air knocked out of her breathe as the intensity of the Princess' final words struck home. To notice her own swelling hopes and unmasked guilt, to realize that her command was on the brink of mutiny, to visualize the crowning halo of light surrounding that burning-blue hair...
The floating figure before them no longer seemed a mere girl who happened to draw the straw of royalty.
She is an Empress in the making.
On that day, Lieutenant-Colonel Lynette de Villars became the first Rhin-Lotharingie commander who swore an oath of fealty beneath the banner of Crown Princess Sylviane.
She was joined soon after, by all six-hundred-and-forty-three of her men.