“I thought you said your dining room had a view.” Brogan complained, looking out the open window at the haphazard rows of tents and shanties before them. As the window was East-facing, the setting sun lay behind them, casting reddish shadows over the sorry hamlet, giving it the appearance of having been dipped in blood.
“It’s the best view you’ll find in town.” Walfus assured him. “Give it some time. I saw three stabbings in the past two days alone!”
The General grimaced. “You need a new hobby.”
“Misfortune comes to all, whether I watch or not.” The man answered expansively. “Someone might as well get some enjoyment out of it.”
The General declined to respond, focusing on his meal instead.
“Oh fine, enough about me!” Walfus laughed. “Tell me, what are you and your merry band doing, getting all geared up for war?”
“I do believe if I told you, you’d find a way to profit off it somehow.”
“Not necessarily.” He shrugged. “There is one thing more important to me than profit, after all.”
“And that is?”
“Amusement, naturally.” Walfus grinned wolfishly. “You’re getting ready to give someone a hard time. It could be fun to watch it play out.”
“You’re a bad man.” The General shook his head.
“The world’s bad, I just know how to dance to its rhythm.” He shot back. “But you’re evading. Who’s the victim?”
“The Toscavs.” Brogan confessed.
“Odd choice.” Walfus admitted. “So, what’s in it for you?”
“I should think stopping them would be its own reward.” The General huffed.
“No, sounds phony.” Walfus dismissed the idea. “All people are self-serving by nature. Look out there.” He gestured out the window with his fork.
In the alleyways below, a small family was leaving Walfus’ Commodities, a crate of groceries in tow between them. As the General looked on, a man and woman stepped out of an adjoining alley, neatly clubbing the two parents into unconsciousness and making off with their groceries, ignoring the screaming children.
“I refused to let those two put their groceries on tab.” Walfus explained, as the thieves disappeared into an adjoining lane. “I knew they had no way to pay me back. As you can see, all men are out for themselves. Backed into a corner, families will steal and murder, even among each other to keep their own self above water.”
“What could I possibly stand to gain from fighting the Toscavs?” The General asked in a low voice.
“Eh, only you can know that.” Walfus shrugged. “But if had to say…” He focused his piercing grey eyes on the old man. “My guess would be… redemption. Am I wrong?”
Brogan averted his eyes.
“Not that it’s any of my business.” Walfus chuckled, thrusting out his fork and snatching the General’s untouched steak. “Seeing you and your thirty-odd men getting annihilated doesn’t sound particularly riveting. Once you’ve left, I think I’ll head East. This country’s starting to depress me.”
Silence settled on the meal. Then, unbidden, an odd sound broke the quietude, carried along on the evening breeze.
People were cheering.
“What in…” Walfus muttered, noticing people were starting to stream out of their tents and hovels, passing the balcony as they headed towards the source of the noise.
“O’BREN!” Walfus bellowed, stomping his foot loudly on the planks. With a heavy pounding of hurried steps, the giant man scrambled through the adjoining doorway in answer.
“What’s going on out there? Speak up, man!” Walfus demanded.
“I…er, dunno sir.” He rumbled. “Some dame’s giving a speech. Folks’re saying one of the, ah, great heroes has come to lead the people, um, against the Toscavs.”
Walfus stood poleaxed in surprise for all of five seconds, before he erupted in a gleeful chortle.
“Yes! YES! Now that’s more like it! I don’t know what’s going on, but it positively reeks of amusement! Come now O’Bren, close up shop and let’s go look! You too, Brogan!”
Before the General could object, the merchant prince had grabbed him by the arm and was racing down the stairs two at a time, chasing after the ever-louder sound of cheering.
Philius was moved. He had been more surprised than anyone when Chrysalism had appeared on the roof of a shabby general store and started to speak, but there was no denying her powers of oration.
She had opened with a stern chastisement of the assembled crowd, which had immediately gained her their full attention. Then, she moved into what Philius assumed was on old Brykian legend, one that moved many a citizen to fierce tears of patriotism. Without missing a beat, she switched to pragmatic realism. She called their attention to their current predicament, assuring them that their reprieve was only temporary; Whether famine or foe found them first, they were finished.
From there, she seamlessly moved to a tearful appeal to her spellbound audience. She reminded them of the former glories of Ancient Bryke, which had been sullied by the Toscav invaders, and assured them that the great heroes of old would be rolling in their graves if they saw what had become of their beautiful country, for which they had laid down their lives.
Finally, she delivered a call to action so rousing, so patriotic, Philius forgot his own heritage as a Chronian, and found himself thanking God he had been born a Brykian. By the time Chrysalism closed with Marwynn the Great’s famed quote “In every drop of red Brykian blood lies the legacy of a thousand heroes”, Philius would have charged the Toscav Empire single-handedly, had she asked him to.
That’s why when Chrysalism’s voice rang in his head asking him to make an argument against her, he was at a loss.
“Oh, for the love of… Say anything!” She snapped. “It’s critical to the effect!”
“But what should I say?” He thought back lamely.
“Say…” She thought. “Say “But the Toscavs have an army!”” She instructed. “Big sister will make sure you’re heard. She’s been magnifying my voice too.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Philius did as he was bidden.
“But the Toscavs have an army!” He yelled out, surprised as his voice echoed across the now hushed crowd.
“And we.” Chrysalism responded in a booming voice
Not even her magically augmented voice could overpower the cheers from the masses.
“Who will follow me?” Chrysalism demanded.
Before the crowd could roar its support, Swimfa’alafr strode out in front of the crowd, parting them like grass. Already three feet higher than their tallest man, she grew before them up to her full 18-foot height, silencing the gathered citizens. Turning to face Chrysalism, she knelt down in fealty before her.
“I, She-Who-Is-Most-Fair,-Above-All-Last-Autumn’s-Fallen-Raindrops, World-Gardener of Southern Sagittaria, swear eternal fealty to you, Chrysalism, Liberator of Bryke, foe of Toscav!” She intoned in her mighty, sibilant voice.
As one, the crowd fell to its knees, each intoning their own pledge of allegiance.
In fact, only one man wasn’t kneeling.
“You didn’t tell me you had a World-Gardener!” Walfus quivered with excitement. “Oh fortuitous, fantastical, incredibly happy day! You could live a thousand lives and not see a day like this again!”
He turned to the General, who was kneeling in unabashed devotion. “Consider Walfus Engleburry wholly devoted to your cause, dear General! Ask whatever you need, and it’s yours! Armaments? Supplies? Munitions? All yours! I’ll personally lead my wagon trains along with you and your army. Let’s crush these damnable Toscavs!”
The General looked at the exuberant merchant prince with a mix of hope and trepidation. “Why?” he asked.
“Why else?” Walfus grinned back at him wolfishly, a mad gleam in his eyes.
“Because it’s going to be so much fun!”
That night, all of Vioré celebrated.
Consequently, Walfus made his last profit off its citizens, as was to be expected.
All citizens were promised weapons, rations, and a helmet, but should a forward-thinking Brykian wish to perhaps acquire armour or a shield to increase their chance of survival, or salt, meat, or other luxuries to broaden their meals, those had to be purchases, at a substantial markup.
Also, every red-blooded Brykian saw it as a matter of course that they should bring some dish or beverage to the night’s festivities, and these too had to be purchased.
In short, Walfus was well on his way to make back his investment in the coming battle, as citizens sold everything that wasn’t nailed down to fund their preparations.
Naturally, Walfus has anticipated this entirely.
As far as Brogan and his band went, their celebration took place outside the boundaries of the town, and was substantially more subdued. Handshakes, compliments, and back-pats were offered and given to Chrysalism for her great feat, but after that, all sat down to business while she attended the party in her honour.
“Discounting woman, children, and the elderly, I reckon we’re around 8,000 strong.” Smigg reported gruffly. “This changes things.”
“Not as much as you might think.” Brogan returned. “As of last year, Toscav was reported to have in excess of 24,000 soldiers. Granted, I expect they won’t commit their full forces to Jortnan, but even if they send half that, that’s 12,000 armed infantry, cavalry, and archers, not counting several hundred siege weapons. Anything remotely resembling direct combat must be avoided at all costs.”
“So we stick to the original plan?” Smigg confirmed. “Hit and run?”
“I expect with the new recruits, we could split into different divisions, mounting some men to harass their column’s rear and cut off supplies, while we send every man with a bow ahead to Jortnan as an advanced warning, and support. They’ll need all available archers when the Toscavs arrive.” He mused, stroking his mustache.
“Aside from that, we’ll need a small team capable of stealth to attempt to poison their supplies and sabotage their siege engines.” The General stopped and tapped his knee thoughtfully. “Any men left not in the aforementioned groups will stay with us as backup, for scouting, and to help create ambushes on the way.” He paused. “Of course, that’s merely my suggestion. This is Chrysalism’s army, she no doubt has a plan of her own.”
“Oh come on, General!” Philius laughed. “We all know you’re the one that’s actually going to be commanding us.”
“No,” Brogan sighed, rising to his feet. “I’m afraid that won’t be the case, lad. As of today, I officially resign my position as leader of this army.”
All those gathered around the campfire murmured in shock at the announcement.
Except Walfus. He merely smirked knowingly.
“General, sir, with all due respect,” Smigg interjected. “I don’t believe the lady knows the first thing about guerilla combat. We need your tactical advice and experience, General. Nobody else is qualified.”
“If she needs advice, she can ask someone who actually fought before.” The General retorted bitterly. “I’ve only seen combat on a map.”
“If I may, little brother.” Swimfa’alafr muttered softly. “We all joined under your leadership. I swore an oath of fealty, remember.”
“You also swore one to Chrysalism.” The General shrugged, turning to go. “A whole town was your witness. That’s the one that counts.”
As he went to leave, he turned back and scanned the assembled part sadly.
“Why General!” Walfus smirked back in mock surprise. “Was it something I said?”
Without a word, the General quickly turned and left.
“You snake, what’d you say to him?” Philius growled, gripping Walfus by the collar.
“Mind the clothes, they’re worth more than you.” The merchant prince smiled back calmly. “The good General’s simply learning not to fight for personal reasons.”
In one smooth movement, Walfus leaned back on his log, planting a foot on Philius’ chest and catapulting him head over heels into the shrubbery.
While Philius tried to regain his breath, Walfus walked over to him and knelt down. “Unless you want to spend your last four days as a disembodied head, I would avoid picking a fight with me.” He smiled mirthlessly. “I’ve never fought a Chronian before, so it won’t take much for my curiosity to overcome my courtesy.”
With that dire threat hanging over Philius, Walfus strode back to Vioré, leaving the campfire shrouded in silence.ns188.8.131.52da2