Chapter V: Shifting Waters
Ever since Icefellow had been assigned as Northlight’s Archon, the dull pace of the city had allowed him to elevate waiting to an art. During the winter, every day was absolutely the same; he would wake up, stretch, then go to his office and there, he would be greeted by the intense smell of a steaming cup of gniduk tea. Since the original essence of this local herb was unbearably bitter in taste (and the mouthing of a single sip covered the mouth in a similarly displeasing coating that persisted for hours), he would always pour about half a glass of wine or beer in the cup. After that, he would go through the merchant guild’s report, validate it, then the fishermen's’ requests for extra barrels, validate them, then the miners’ requests for extra storage, validate them, and so on and so forth. He had found, over these long five years of service, that Northlight was pretty much self-reliant and self-sustaining; the more he intervened in the city’s day-to-day life, the more the locals would groan and mumble. Being trapped in the far side of the kingdom, without professional guards meant that he set the locals’ satisfaction as a significant priority.
Every now and then, however, he would have the lucidity of mind to ask himself whether his services -melting wax and pressing his seal on top- were indeed necessary. He had been brought up surrounded by the elite of the land: nobles, courtiers, artisans, one different from one another, but connected under a common theme. Contempt for the layman, that is. Naturally, this existential controversy stirred the usually calm waters of his consciousness. The first few times he went sleepless for days, under the influence of the notion that the locals would uncover this ploy, simply by means of questioning the necessity of tax-paying.
The thought process was somewhat interesting though. When he could not muster the self-restraint needed to suppress the tension, the waters would boil, giving rise to bubbles, which would burst into reactionary thoughts once they reached the forefront of his mind:
“The peasants can’t even wield a sword properly”
“If the peasants were better, they would be governing us, and not the opposite”
“Of course, the layman could never govern himself!”
More aphorisms of the kind made their way from the bottom of his mind’s well. Alas, due to the separation from the refreshing influence of the court, contempt for the layman gradually lost its effervescence. Gradually, with nothing happening, he started sleeping normally again, complacent, and always hoping that the apathy would not faulter.
Now, however, he can barely contain himself. It feels as though the deep waters are boiling again, this time owing to a different sort of heat. The observer’s sangfroid has been displaced by will to power; like a block of sand cracking under added weight and pressure, the war’s effects, it appears, have torn the barriers that long held the primeval serpents tame.
He barges out of the his office and takes long strides towards Morgun’s quarter. Surely, the man got more than enough time to rest. As he steps by his secretary’s office, he finds that the smile has been wiped clean off her face, and her eyes remain fixated on whatever document she’s working on, and silence has replaced the courteous subservience with which she always asked how his day was. He cares only a little.
Morgun, on the other hand, is as calm as usual, sitting in the barracks with the surgeon working on removing a cracked bullet’s shards from his chest. To survive amid cannon-fire, to hold your own against a charging horde, to wreck the most vicious marauders, you are forced to develop an insatiable appetite for violence, and keep yourself in a state of constant alertness. During combat, it is expected that a soldier be wounded: a stray or lorded bullet can pierce the skin, even shatter a bone that lies underneath; an unexpected swing of a maul can send him flying in the air, or a well-put blade-strike can send ripples of pain across your entire body. What separates the good soldier from the dead soldier, is how well they can channel the stress of the wound; the latter flinches, further lowering his defenses and permitting the enemy to offer an even more refined strike. To live, though, the soldier must flinch forward, to leverage the adrenalin rush as a means to absorb the pain and deliver an opportune strike right when the enemy has sacrificed the his robust defense so as to press the attack.
Although Morgun was well-versed in the theory of the technique, he found it preferable to pick the alternative of using cunning and strategy to outsmart the enemy; after all, this choice of his was what allowed him to skip the onerous visit to the surgeon’s table. As such, his military philosophy suggested that the best option was to deliver a single, full-force strike, that crippled the enemy to the point that any retaliatory urge would mean no more than misery-provoking death throes. Hopefully, having command of the city’s militia could allow for a decisive blow.
Granting complete command over the city’s militia was a welcome concession on the archon’s behalf. Morgun found good reason to separate the body of five hundred in six companies, each led by five of his men. The local troops were reluctant to join at first; the locals knew, better than him, that venturing beyond the walls and taking a stroll right on the path of a blizzard was a bad idea, and most would rather spend the evening at home, sitting by the fireplace with their families or drinking at the inn. Faced with the fear of failure due to weak morale, he decided that he could trim the profit margin enough to offer them the generous pay of a single silver per day and for up to three days (which he estimated would suffice to scour the entirety of the Chiontezzo) to sweeten the deal.
Still, a particular thought troubled the experienced the mercenary captain. Marauders are self-serving by nature. They share no camaraderie, and the bounds that hold them together are always as heavy as the bags of loot they plan to steal. Their weakness lies exactly there; when the evil-doers realize that they have been outsmarted, they are quick to either scatter, or charge with reckless brutality. This band, however, transgressed both of the two expectations. First, they displayed a first-seen patience. They neither retreated, nor charged; rather, they stayed put in their hiding place. Like a well-organized company, they took out Kardul, the sniper (it is easy to sneak behind a man focused on the cross-hair), then carried on with the ambush.
Secondly, one of the group was brass enough to jump in the firing zone just to save his companion. Morgun had seen merchants abandoning their closest allies in the blink of an eye out of greed, barbarians up north eating their own children during particularly cold winters out of necessity noblemen who were supposedly allies turning against one another out of power-lust. Jumping inside a storm of bullets to save a companion though? That, that was honour. Morgun had thought that the notion had long expired from the world.
The barracks’ door is kicked open. The surgeon, working on Morgun’s chest, flinches and pulls the string upwards, causing the straight lines of the stitch to fall apart into a tangled mass. Morgun clenches his teeth to avoid screaming. Icefellow barges in the room, his cheeks red as apples.
“Have you got them?” his voice disrupts the earlier silence.
“Can you close the door please my lord?” the sound of Morgun’s voice is on the verge between courtesy and irony.
Icefellow makes an annoyed grimace, then grabs the door and slaps it shut. He then approaches the surgeon’s bed, stands above the wounded captain and stares down on the now bleeding wound. Morgun nods to the surgeon that he resume his work.
“So?” Icefellow breaks the silence again.
Icefellow exhales loudly.
“So...did you get them?”
“Any moment now.”
“Ah, you’ve pinned them down someplace?”
“No, no I have not.”
“Then how come you claim we’ll be getting them any moment now?”
“Well, we have enough forces to scour the entire Chiontezzo. They are somewhere out there and they will not be able to hide for too long, thanks to your assistance.”
Icefellow is expressionless. He simply stands up, and heads towards the door. He opens it, with perfect calmness and takes a step out.
“Oh, and you mentioned a ship was coming, right?” Icefellow asks.
“The blizzard has frozen the shallows on the edge of the gulf’s mouth, no hull too deep can make its way to the harbour.”
Icefellow was in less talkative mood than usual. It was by this account that he did not mention that it was exactly this freeze that had kept the Naramarian ships from storming the gulf. If the icy barrier was cleared, the ships could actually come within firing range of the city. Although it was doubtful that a few hundred sailors would leave the comfort of the ship to charge against the wall, the docks would be ransacked and pillaged. When the blizzard season showed signs of withdrawing, the Archon had plans to have the contents of the warehouses moved to the empty city dungeons.
“Have the barrier cleared and station a few guards with lanterns next to it. The ship will be here by nightfall.”
“You know there is an enemy fleet beyond the barrier, right?” Icefellow was laconic.
“Yes. Your city won’t starve, don’t worry. I’ll have the land routes cleared in no time.” Morgun tries to reassure him. The Archon does not care to even look.
“You’d better.” he whispers, unsure whether Morgun hears him in the silence.