Chapter 2
Quicksand

AZ 1452 - Late Spring
Castle Notos, Maximilion, Notos

"Again," Duke Cronos demanded.
"That will be enough for today, milord," Sir Telemachos replied, sheathing his sword.
For all his authority, the Duke could not order his Master of the Sword to continue the training any longer than he would. The training would be as long or as short as Telemachos saw fit and perhaps only the King himself could say otherwise.
Duke Cronos took a towel and mopped the sweat from his brow. He had lost his edge in his ten years as governor-general and was long overdue for sharpening, hence his renewed training with Telemachos.
He made a grave error thinking the rebels calling themselves the Promethean Alliance died with their leaders. While all the Duke's attention was directed toward making preparations for the war effort against the Darklands, the rebels regrouped under a new, more cunning leader. By infiltrating the local militia volunteers and forging clever alliances--Prince Carpos among them, no less--, the rebels succeeded in seizing Girondin and later Hebertos. When Cronos dispatched a cohort to secure the captured cities, the rebels vanished like mist. Subsequent attacks on Iakobin and Maranthe had been thwarted and since then, months had passed without any significant rebel activity, but Cronos knew it was only a matter of time and he was preparing himself for the rebels' next move.
The man lauded as the Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns would not suffer his reputation to be tarnished any further. He moved cohorts of the Third Legion into Girondin, Kordai and Babophos to decisively respond to the next attack. Overwhelming the local garrisons was one thing. Defeating a cohort nearly 700 men strong was quite another.
He had been expecting a spring offensive, but the rebels continued to lay low. Perhaps they were not as strong as the tacticians feared. Perhaps the time had come for the Duke to go on the offensive, find their burrows, drive them out, hunt them like the vermin they were.
"How would you like to go rat-catching, Sir Telemachos?" the Duke asked the Master of the Sword.
"No sport in it, milord," a disinterested Telemachos replied.
"Sporting or not, it is a necessary task."
Telemachos sniffed, "Necessary, perhaps, but a job for the common soldier."
Duke Cronos grinned and asked, "Too good for rat-catching, are you, sir?"
"I am, milord," Telemachos replied without the slightest sense that he was picking up on the Duke's light teasing. "A waste of my talents. And yours."
"These rats were able to take Girondin and Hebertos, you know," the Duke said pointedly. "We would do well not to underestimate them."
"Defeating an unprepared hundred-man garrison in two of the most hostile cities in the Protectorate? Give me ten good men and I could do the same. We would do just as well not to overestimate these rats, milord."
The Duke did not feel Telemachos' boast was an idle one, but this quibbling was getting them nowhere.
"Regardless of our estimation of them, they must be dealt with once and for all."
"Let them try to stand against the cohorts you have dispatched," Telemachos said. "They would not dare an open battle."
"That is precisely the problem," the Duke replied. "This new leader of theirs is no fool. He will use any trick or subterfuge to gain the upper hand. That is how rebels win battles."
"Reading your opponent's moves is the key to victory, no matter who you may face," Telemachos said. "If you were the rebel leader, where would you strike?"
Cronos had been asking himself the very same question ever since the capture of Girondin. The retreats and defeats that followed indicated that the Duke had successfully turned the tables on the rebels. Admittedly, he only succeeded in anticipating one of the three major attacks that followed Girondin, and that was thanks to his network of spies rather than any prescience on his part. That did not stop him from trying to see through the enemy's plans, though.
"It would be folly to challenge the cohorts directly where they are stationed in Kordai, Babophos and Girondin. Another attack on Hebertos and Iakobin would be pointless. Kalonis and Danton are too friendly to Zephyr to grant them the cover of the local population and so long as Sir Ionathas is in Maranthe, they are bound to face defeat again there as well."
"That would leave Maximilion," Telemachos replied.
"This city?" the Duke asked, scarcely believing Telemachos would even suggest such a thing. "Even with three-quarters of the Legion deployed elsewhere, there are men enough to meet any threat the rebels could pose, I would say. And would they have the audacity to launch a direct attack on the capital when they cannot even hold the city most sympathetic to their cause?"
"You tell me, milord."
Telemachos' impassiveness was frustrating, but even though he claimed no praise as a great strategist, the Master of the Sword knew how to test the limits of a man's mind as well as those of his body. Cronos tried to envision a way to make the scenario he posed in any way plausible/
Shaking his head, the Duke replied, "I could not imagine it. No, I suppose they will settle for hit-and-run attacks and save what numbers they have for a more ambitious offensive after the Legion joins the invasion force."
This answer did not satisfy Telemachos.
"If the rebel leader was that patient and humble, would we have seen attempts on four cities in the past two years?"
The rebel leader was indeed a bold one, but he was canny enough to flee from the cohorts rather that suffer heavy losses. He would take great risks, but he was clearly acting with a mind for the long term. He would have put up an effort to hold Girondin and Hebertos if he could accept the losses he would inevitably incur. His flight indicated he could not afford that cost, so obviously his numbers were few.
"They cannot possibly have the manpower to stage a successful assault on this city."
The Duke's arguments continued to fail to convince Telemachos.
"Surely you should know, milord, that they do not need to win by strength of arms to score a victory here," the Master of the Sword said. "Any attack on the capital would be a grievous stain on our honor. If we cannot keep the rebels out of Maximilion, what good is the Zephyrian occupation? That is what the Notians will think and men will flock to the Alliance's banner."
A hundred men, even fifty, could cause enough damage to shake the people's confidence in the Protectorate. Those were numbers the rebel leader could afford to lose and still advance his plan. That could not be allowed to happen.
The Duke began pacing and said, mostly to himself, "We must step up patrols, strengthen the city's defenses, redouble our search for their agents hidden among the local population..."
"You intend to do all this with a thousand men, fifteen hundred if you count the volunteers?"
Cronos leveled his gaze at Telemachos with grim determination.
"We must. There is no other choice."
"My lord!" a voice cried at the door.
"Enter," the Duke said.
A herald entered the room and saluted the Duke. With head bowed, he said, "My lord, His Highness and his entourage have arrived at the castle and he requests your presence for an inspection of our forces."
Prince Carpos, here? Would he dare? Yes, he was smart enough to know that the truth of his betrayal was being suppressed for the sake of the royal family's honor. It nearly won him Iakobin and if he had his entire honor guard with him, he could use them to devastating effect. Would he risk his forces in a gamble like this?
"How many men are in His Highness' entourage?" Cronos asked the herald.
"I could not say, my lord," the herald replied. "I did not see them myself."
"Have they been admitted into the castle yet?"
"Of course, my lord."
"All of them?"
"I would imagine so, my lord."
According to protocol, any large group would be held in the forecourt. So long as the Prince did not tip his hand by attacking early, the palace guard could encircle his host from the ramparts. Controlling the high ground would offset the numerical disadvantage and give the rest of the garrison time to come to their aid. Of course, if Cronos maneuvered correctly, he might be able to take them with minimal bloodshed.
"Tell Lord Eustathios to have His Highness escorted to the throne room," the Duke told the herald. "I will meet him there. Also tell him that I want every man armed in full array."
"My lord?"
"His Highness wants an inspection," the Duke replied. "We must oblige him."
"As you say, my lord."
"Go."
"By your leave, my lord," the herald said.
With a bow, the herald turned and left. Duke Cronos continued to ponder all the variables, wondering if there was anything he had overlooked. Sir Telemachos did not let him think for long before speaking up.
"I doubt His Highness alone would make you blanch so, milord."
The Duke's reaction to the news of Prince Carpos' arrival did not escape the sharp-eyed Telemachos. He did not know the truth and it was not Cronos' intent for him to learn it now.
"Whatever do you mean?" the Duke asked.
"Don't play coy me, milord," Telemachos said sharply. "One mention of His Highness and you would think the Noctifer himself appeared at our doorstep."
His words were more apt than he realized, but the Duke could not let him know that.
"Perhaps it was simply that your training wore on me more than I had accounted for."
Telemachos ignored the Duke's attempt at deflection.
"I find it odd that His Highness would still be here in Notos," he said. "Was he not supposed to return to Hesperia last year?"
"His Highness has taken an especial interest in Notoss," the Duke said in a measured tone that betrayed nothing, or at least that was he hoped.
"Indeed so?"
Telemachos was no fool and he clearly saw through the Duke's evasions, but there was no time to worry about that.
"Come," Duke Cronos said. "I must change for this audience. You will need to ready yourself as well. Remember, full array. We must not keep His Highness waiting."
"As you wish, milord."
They made their way to the Duke's chambers. The governor-general resided in the royal quarters, though the old bedchamber of the king had long been sealed out of respect for the Notian people. Telemachos slept in the antechamber with the chamberlains and other bodyguards, and that was where he left Cronos' side to array himself as ordered.
To a chamberlain still loitering in the antechamber, the Duke said, "Bring me a change of clothes and my armor. Quickly, now."
"As you say, my lord," the chamberlain replied with a bow.
Almost as soon as the Duke stepped into his bedchamber, a half-dozen servants scurried in to wash and dress him. There was a time when he rejected the ministrations of all these servants, but he came to accept it as a necessary part of the expectations attached to his post. However, in the back of his mind a voice told him that relying on servants like this was no small part of what had rendered him so weak. Now was not the time to worry about that, though.
As one servant was girding on the Duke's belt and two more were strapping on his greaves, a panicked herald burst into the chamber.
"My lord! We are under attack!"
"Where!?" the Duke demanded.
"At the armory, my lord. And at the Lion Gate and the Aiolian Baths."
"The Prince's men?"
"My lord?"
The herald's look of confusion indicated that it was not Prince's men behind this attack. That meant however many enemies surrounded them roundabout, there were still five hundred more ready and waiting with a knife at their heart. If he could still outmaneuver Prince Carpos, perhaps the greater threat could be eliminated.
"I must hurry to the throne room," the Duke said. "Find Centurion Nikolaios and have him post archers on the ramparts around the forecourt."
"Ye, yes, my lord," the herald stammered. "Right away, my lord."
As the herald left, the chamberlains were finishing their work. The Duke told the most senior of them, "Find the High Chamberlain. Tell him to have the servants take refuge in the basilica."
"It will be done, my lord," the chamberlain replied.
The chamberlains went ahead of the Duke, who exited into the antechamber where Sir Telemachos was waiting for him. The Duke continued to walk and Telemachos followed.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on, milord?" the Master of the Sword asked.
"First we must tend to His Highness," the Duke replied as he walked briskly on.
They had to cross one of the inner courts to reach the throne room. The sounds of battle could already be heard in the distance. There was no time to lose.
In the antechamber to the king's entrance, Duke Cronos looked to Telemachos and said, "Be ready."
Telemachos rested his hand on the hilt of his sword as he opened the door. When they stepped into the throne room, all Duke Cronos' fears were realized before his eyes. Lord Eustathios and the throne room guards were all lying dead in pools of their own blood along with three or four of Prince Carpos' men. As for the Prince himself, he was sitting on the throne surrounded by a good twenty men of his retinue. Ten Royal Bodyguards quickly descended from the throne's dais to surround Cronos and Telemachos.
"Duke Cronos," the Prince said, "it was rude of you to keep me waiting. It cost poor Lord Eustathios there his life."
Cronos glanced at the slain tribune before looking back to the throne.
"The reports of Your Highness' cruelty are well-founded, it would seem," the Duke replied.
Prince Carpos scowled.
"It would be a pity if the acclaimed Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns met his end because of an immoderate tongue."
"It is a pity that His Highness must meet his end as a traitor to the Crown."
"I am the Crown!" Prince Carpos spat back.
"Not now and not ever," Duke Cronos growled. "I am glad that you showed your true colors now, so that Zephyr will be spared your misrule."
The Prince's face turned pink in anger, but he was stopped by the tribune at his right, who rested a hand on his shoulder. The gesture caused the Prince to check himself before making another outburst.
"I might have spared you," the Prince said in a barely restrained voice, "if you had agreed to fight under my banner, but your insolence cannot be suffered. However, I am not without mercy. Order your men in the city to stand down and then send the order to the other tribunes that the Third Legion is now under my direct command. Do so and the lives of your men at least will be spared. Surely you do not wish to see Zephyrian blood spilled in vain."
"It is not in vain that our blood is shed against tyrants and traitors," the Duke replied coldly. He then raised his voice and shouted, "You men of the Royal Bodyguard, have you no honor? I order you in the name of His Majesty the King to arrest this traitor and join us in the defense of the city!"
The men were silent, but the Prince laughed.
"You fool! Do you think you can turn the men of Carpos' Band against me? These men were all hand-picked for their loyalty, not to my dotard of a father but to me. They live for me, they die for me, and when I come into my kingdom, they will be richly rewarded."
"You would sell your honor for titles and treasures?" the Duke demanded of Carpos' men. "You have blackened your names and the names of your families, but it is not too late to turn back."
"You are wasting your time, Duke Cronos," the Prince said, "and I tire of your prattling. Will you give the order to save your men's lives or must they die like dogs with you?"
"I will die before I give that order," the Duke replied defiantly.
"Very well then. Make it so."
Before the Royal Bodyguards could close in, Telemachos stepped in front of the Duke and drew his sword with a flourish.
"Traitors, be warned!" he barked. "If you mean to do harm to the Duke, you must first go through Telemachos, the son of Meleagros, Master of the Sword of the Third Legion."
Several of the men knew of Telemachos' fame and unconsciously retreated a step or two. This only served to annoy Prince Carpos further.
"Cowards!" he screeched. "He is but one man! Kill him!"
Telemachos did not give the Royal Bodyguards time to gather their nerve. His arm lashed out with whiplike speed, thrusting his blade into the neck of a Bodyguard on his left. He then bashed the man next to the stricken Bodyguard with his shield and slashed in a wide arc to ward off the three to right. This gave him the time stab another trying to move in to flank him. The Royal Bodyguards were the elite of the elite, but even they were hard-pressed to stand against a swordsman of Telemachos' caliber.
The Duke could not afford to continue standing there watching Telemachos' work. There were three Bodyguards behind them and they would not be stunned by the Master of the Sword's artistry for long. He took his helmet, which he had been holding under his arm, and threw it at the Bodyguard in the center as a distraction while he lunged at the one to his left. He did not fare as well as Telemachos did in his first strike, though, and he locked blades with his opponent. The Bodyguard was both younger and stronger than the Duke and likely more skilled with a sword.
What he could not gain by pure skill, he could gain by guile. The Duke gave way and the sudden shift in momentum threw the Bodyguard off balance. Sidestepping the Bodyguard to let him stumble forward, the Duke drew the pugio strapped to his leg and drove the point under the Bodyguard's arm. He twisted the blade sharply and yanked it out, giving the Bodyguard a good shove too keep him off-balance. He would be dead before he could fully recover his footing.
That left two more of immediate concern, but Telemachos darted forward to stab the one on the right before turning back to take on two more who descended from the dais to reinforce their comrades. The Duke's sole remaining opponent was the Bodyguard he threw his helmet at. The Bodyguard grinned savagely, dropping his shield and sheathing his sword.
"I don't need a sword to kill you, milord," he said. "I'll crush you with my bare hands."
The Bodyguard assumed the fighting stance of a pankratiast. The Duke knew that the Bodyguard was no less deadly unarmed, but perhaps his overconfidence could be turned against him.
Moving with unexpected speed for a man his size, the Bodyguard closed in, ducked down to seize the Duke under the leg and arm, and lifted him up in single smooth motion. The Bodyguard then threw the Duke down on the floor. Cronos' body bounced off the stone floor and the wave of pain nearly paralyzed him. However, the Duke retained enough presence of mind to take his pugio and thrust it into the Bodyguard's foot. The Bodyguard howled in pain and the distraction left just enough of an opening for the Duke to drive his sword into the Bodyguard's thigh.
Enraged, the Bodyguard locked his fingers together to bring down both fists on the Duke's head, but Cronos was able to dodge just in the nick of time. The Bodyguard dropped to one knee as his fists struck the floor and Cronos finished him off with a stab to the neck. The Bodyguard hung there for a moment before toppling over.
"Get His Highness out of here!" a voice cried.
"What are you doing!?" Prince Carpos screeched. "Kill them! Kill them! Unhand me, I say!"
Cronos rolled over to see Telemachos delivering a deathblow to one of the archers up on the dais while the mere five men remaining of the Prince's escort were beating a hasty retreat. Rather than pursue them, Telemachos returned to the Duke's side.
"What are you doing!?" the Duke demanded. "You almost had the Prince. If we have him, we can stop his men. It is not too late. Do not worry about me. Go get him."
"I can't do that, milord," Telemachos replied, kneeling down and extending his hand to the Duke. "The battlemage I killed blinded me when I stuck him."
The Duke accepted his hand and stood back up. He looked at his Master of the Sword somewhat suspiciously.
"You are rather surefooted for a blind man," he said.
"I don't need my eyes to walk, milord," Telemachos replied, "but I do need them to fight and kill three Royal Bodyguards, an archer and a battlemage. Come, milord, we have to get you out of here. It's only a matter of time before the Prince sends more of his men this way."
"I will not leave this castle," the Duke insisted.
"There are no more than a hundred men of ours in these walls, surely less now, and well over five hundred under His Highness' command unless times have been that tough since he turned traitor."
The bitterness in Telemachos' voice was undeniable, but the Duke sensed that it was directed more at himself than at Prince Carpos.
Cronos sighed. "I suppose there is nothing to gain in hiding it now."
"I don't need to tell you that men are dying for your secret, milord," Telemachos said coldly. "The castle is lost for now, but so long as you live, you can rally what men remain and hold the city until reinforcements arrive."
Cronos did what he did for the honor of the royal family. Not only were his men dying for this, but now he stood to lose capital. Even if he did turn the battle around, the Protectorate's grip would be greatly weakened. This day could very well be the turning point for the rebellion.
As Telemachos led the Duke into one of the hidden tunnels that would take them beyond the castle walls, Cronos muttered, "How did it all go so wrong?"
"Even a genius can be outwitted, milord," Telemachos replied, "but it's the fool who doesn't learn from his mistakes."
Yes, Cronos had made many mistakes in the handling of this uprising, but he would not repeat them. He was the Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns. He would not be beaten by this gang of bandits, rogues and traitors. Their victory would be short-lived. Peace and security would be restored, no matter the cost.