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  1. Early Spring, 1450 A.D. (3458 on the Cussian Calendar, or the 3rd Year of the Reign of the Blessed Shahanshah Manūkehr), The Eastern March of Kalupsis Province Morning came to the southern foothills with all the dreary, moody bluster any experienced Occidental traveler would expect from early spring in the eastern-most portion of the Cussian Dominate. A light drizzle wafted down from the still-gray heavens, tossed about by a wind that seemed to forget that winter had passed. Cooking fires crackled under wisent-hide lean-to?s in dogged and rambunctious clusters in spite of the precipitation. Camp life continued despite the miserable weather?as the scent of salted beef and ham frying over fires spread, and the thick, rich Cussian coffee began to flow the legions of men gathered together in the camp-city began to truly stir. It had been a long winter spent in the camp, with most of the fighting men and camp followers hundreds if not thousands of miles away from their homes. Boredom and dysentery had scourged the army throughout the bitter winter, one of the coldest and wettest in the long memory of the Cussian race, and the sprawling camp had been held to order only through the growing legend of the Shahanshah, and the creeping, hacking terror of his Immortals- who were now something of legend as well. More than once a simple soldier?s brawl had escalated into a protracted conflict between regiments and their noble commanders, resolved only through the swift and unforgiving intercession of the Immortals, armor clad heavy-cavalrymen unconcerned with station, and their foot-squires?a peace enforced with bardiche, matchlock, seax and shamshir. Careful to avoid depleting the numbers of his mighty army through such displays, the Shahanshah had been careful to slay only the ringleaders of these regimental brawls- impaling those not slain outright and displaying them in plain sight, regardless of noble birth. The grim determination of the Shahanshah and his picked men had been evident before?now it would never be underestimated again- a constant reminder of where power rested in the Cussian Dominate. With the promise of slaughter, of victory against the rebellious March-Warden looming ever larger in the coming days the camp had come out of its wintertime stupor, drilling in the muddy valleys around the camp. As the sun rose above the horizon, the sound of steel on whetstone rose with the steady babble of a myriad of Cussian dialects. The more pious nobles in the army gathered for their morning devotions in the hastily constructed Fire-Temple, perhaps the only truly permanent structure in the camp-city, each vying for the right to kneel within earshot of the Shahanshah. Manūkehr was himself a pious, if vicious man. Rising from obscurity as a royal bastard in the chaotic months after his Great Father?s passing, the Cussian warrior-king seemed to be cut from the same clothe as those warlords of old?calculating, cold, and unfathomably savage Manūkehr cut an impressive figure, even kneeling. Broad shouldered, and thickly muscled from physical labor of the sort that no legitimate Prince would have grown accustomed to in youth, with a fierce raptor?s countenance rimmed with dusky auburn hair and a neatly trimmed and curled beard of the same hue. His voice rising and falling in the morning invocation of his faith, Shahanshah Manūkehr allowed his mind to ease a bit, flowing with the familiar words: ??The will of the Lord is the law of righteousness. The gifts of the Good Mind to the deeds done in this world for Mazda. He who relieves the poor makes Ahura king.? The words brought comfort for a short while, as did the flame born of the Great Flame of Ttoille- a flame which in part promised its lesser ?brothers? to consume the city of the rebellious March-Warden Tūr- Eskendabelık. Even in his devotions the thought of that city grew to consume the Shahanshah, threatening to break his momentary serenity. With great effort Manūkehr pushed the blood-thirst back?long ago he had ceased to see the rebellion here as a personal affront, coming to recognize it for what it was, the greed of one man. That greed would prove to be the ruin of an otherwise prosperous region and its once honorable people?as Manūkehr now feared that there would be no other way to end the rebellion save to put the entire population of the city to the sword, and to sell the country nobles and their serfs into slavery in the west. It would put an end to this, the most stubborn of the rebellions against his rule, which had been called illegitimate and unholy. Few alive outside of the Eastern March would dare to utter such treasonous words now. The devotion came to an end and the Shahanshah rose; he offered a still boyish smile to his closest retainers and to the Priests that had accompanied his host for this campaign. Those priests had been the wise few, many of their former compatriots were now dead, or huddled in Eskendabelık around the would-be Shah Tūr. The others?the others had been ostracized or assassinated outright. Such was the way of the new kingdom, the Dominate that Manūkehr had built. Stepping out into the early morning drizzle, the Shahanshah craned his head at the familiar sound roaring up from the northern portion of the camp-city?s palisade. Mighty lambeg-like war-drums sounded the approach of a lance of Immortal cavalry. Earlier in the day prior they had gone out to determine how far the spring melts had progressed in the higher hills to the north of the camp, where the passes that would lead to Eskendabelık were located. Their journey should have taken far longer than a single day- piquing Manūkehr?s curiosity instantly. Resolving to meet them halfway, the Shahanshah mounted his own horse, despite the squawked protest of his eunuch servitors. Those creatures still disgusted Manūkehr, but there were many customs that even he could not reverse. His horse was a massive beast, resembling a modern Percheron, black as night and ungelded- which was against the protests of his eunuchs as well. He?d named the beast ?Bastard,? in honor of his own illegitimate birth, and also to smite at the honor of any number of haughty nobles who still had secret reservations. There were few warhorses so envied in all the Dominate. Riding before, to either side, and behind the Shahanshah was another detachment of Immortals, picked-men amongst the picked-men. All of them were friends of Manūkehr?s from youth, and amongst the most savage of his murderous host. Their faces were impassive even now, though surely they grasped the strangeness of their comrades early return also. Shamshirs bobbed against their backs as their horses trotted, and matchlocks sat jammed into their saddles within reach of their free-hands. Glittering lances rested easily on their saddles, held stock straight in vice-grip mailed hands. Their own slightly green tinted plate-mail armor matched the Shahanshah?s, emblazed with his own livery, the Sun and Lion motif that he had chosen upon ascending to the Throne. Within moments a host of Cussian ?knights? nearly identical to the one flanking Manūkehr faced them, massive warhorses slowing to a canter and then a stop, iron-shod hooves pawing at the muddy ground. ?Hail Great-King, King of Kings, Lord of the Four Corners of the World, Scion of the Kings that Bestrode the Universe! Hail Manūkehr, friend to the Fighting Man!? The commander of the Immortal host, a seasoned and heavily scarred Kalupsipolitan veteran called Eleutherios bowed his head slightly, and dipped his lance in recognition of Manūkehr. That was all the proskynesis that the Shahanshah required of the Immortals, a sign of his favor. ?Hail noble Eleutherios, Commander of the Hosts of the Sun, Picked-Men of the Picked-Men?you may report.? Manūkehr was eager to ascertain the reason behind the Immortals swift return. Eleutherios motioned swiftly with a mailed hand, and a bound and beaten man stumbled forward, nearly collapsing before the Shahanshah. Manūkehr recognized the man?s look- a Marmakoi mountain-dog, with the looked of the Ten-Times Cursed Haru-Dakat about his eyes. He was from rebellious Eskendabelık then? Eleutherious prodded the man?s shoulder with his lance. ?Speak dog, lest I end your worthless life now.? The lance apparently pricked a wound that had barely scabbed over, as there was a sudden blossom of red down the man?s tattered sleeve, and a more than obvious wince. The Marmakite started to babble in his up-country dialect, which was not proper before one so noble as the Shahanshah, and then checked himself, switching to clear if slightly accented High Cussian. ?I beg your pardon o? Great-King, Lord of the Four Corners of the World, Scion of the Kings that Bestrode the Universe! King of Kings, Great-King of Beautancus, King of Kalupsis, King of Feizon, King of Marmak, Warlord of the Hosts that Cause the World to Tremble at their passing! I am but a humble mountain scout- ach!? Eleutherios? lance dipped down again, piercing deeper this time. ?That?s the last warning. A simple scout wouldn?t have taken the time to learn our proper dialect of The Language as you have. Speak with an unforked tongue Dog!? The Marmakite seemed torn within for a moment, and finally began to speak as he noticed the shadow of the Kalupsipolitan Immortal?s lance descending upon him. ?I am Moctesumeh, of the Lineage of Nahehwa, a Lesser Holding in the Hills north of here- and that is the Truth, so Swear I by the Beard of the Wise Lord Himself!? Moctesumeh lifted his gaze to towards the Holy Sun. Manūkehr allowed his gaze to slide to Eleutherios for a moment, and the Immortal nodded. Apparently he believed that bit. Before the Marmakite could continue Eleutherios spoke up again. ?We came upon this dog and his kin blazing a trail towards the camp as we ascended towards the mountain passes. Some few dozen of them, and better armed than I would have expected?little good it did them.? The savage grin that split the Immortal?s beard was one that the Shahanshah understood perfectly. The Marmakites had probably died nearly to the last man before they?d realized the Immortals had charged them. ?Now tell the Blessed King of Kings why you were coming down from your traitorous mountain.? Again the Marmakite hesitated, but only for a moment. ?Shah Tūr wishes to meet you in battle here with a full host, and with the advantage of surprise before you are able to make it through the passes and lay siege to Eskendabelık.? Manūkehr leaned forward in his saddle slightly, and without warning swung down from horseback. He stepped close to Moctesumeh, eyes boring into the captive?s face. The man was not lying, surely. It was too big a lie? ?How soon before they reach us, and from what direction will they approach?? The Marmakite hesitated, and the Shahanshah?s yatagan lashed up from his waist-sash without warning- slicing up through the man?s testes. The Marmakite dropped to his knees, sobbing and slavering. ?Speak, or I will feed that ruined nub to you dog.? The Shahanshah?s voice was a snake?s hiss- a true clarion call of cruelty if ever there was one. ?Days?and from the north-west?they seek to flank your western tents?they know that unrest abides there?? Between sobs the Marmakite tried to roll in a vain attempt to avoid the pain of his ruined manhood. The Shahanshah?s yatagan licked out again, severing the Marmakites head. ?Prepare the host. We may well crush this rebellion without chancing a long siege.? The Immortals dispersed, bellowing commands at the top of their lungs wherever they rode.
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