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Thread: Chronological Influences IV: The Legacy of Time

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    Chronological Influences IV: The Legacy of Time

    December 26, 1065

    A new year is about to begin. Most of Europe lies asleep, huddled in shelter against the cold, dark winter night. But those who braved the elements or resisted the beckonings of sleep witnessed something extraordinary. In the skies above Europe, something happened.

    For those who gazed up and beheld the event, words failed to describe its magnificence. It was as if the heavens themselves opened forth, offering a glimpse of the wonderous light of another world shinning down upon mortal man. A great swirling vortex of scintillating color and light, this mysterious celestial event outshone the Moon, while the stars themselves faded away, bowing to the glorious sight unfolding. Slowly, this vortex of light and color began to spin faster and faster, growing ever brighter as it did. Soon the whole sky was filled by the spectacle, until it seemed as if the Earth itself would be swallowed up.



    Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the vortex winked out of existence. The stars and the Moon returned, and darkness fell back across the face of Europe. Only the most careful observers would not have missed one final burst of light, no more than a tiny pinprick compared to the cosmic maelstrom that had preceded it. Those living around the Mediterranean would be fortunate to see what followed: a comet, its tail burning like a pillar of fire as it streaked across the night sky. It could be seen only for a few moments before it fell below the horizon. Those living close to the epicenter had the good fortune to see the comet follow its course all the way to the ground, where it finally vanished from sight completely.

    This cosmic pageantry in the sky over Europe inspired the imaginations of many and stirred the hearts and minds of its fortunate witnesses. Though it lasted only for a few brief moments, the event in the night sky did not end there. Rather, it was just the beginning.

    From the bottom of a smoldering crater in the Italian countryside, something stirs. A man has arrived in Rome.

    ~~~~~

    Chronological Influences IV: The Legacy of Time

  2. #2
    Major Alfredian's Avatar
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    A nicely mysterious start. I am interested to see where you will go with this.
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    December 26, 1066



    The first rays of sunshine were just beginning to peak over the walls of the Colosseum into the great central arena as a cloaked figure strode in. Silence pervaded the surroundings, disturbed only by the faint scrape of boots against the ground echoing off the walls. The figure reached up and pulled the cloak's hood back, revealing a middle-aged woman, her bright red hair cut short to her shoulders. Squinting against the sunlight starting to pour down, the woman gazed slowly over the crumbling ruins, before settling her gaze on a man, hands clasped behind his back, standing before the Cross in the center of the arena.

    As she approached the man, the woman could not resist the urge to smile as she caught sight of a few faint smoke trails wafting in the air. The fires from yesterday were all but extinguished, a testament to the new regime's grip on the city even in spite of the mounting violence of the past month.

    "To live in history's shadow..." the man sighed as he turned away from the cross. "Quite a wonderful sight, don't you think?"

    "It is, my lord," the woman replied evenly, glancing around at her surroundings again.

    The man chuckled, conveying only a mild bemusement. "It's just Alexi Stukov for now. 'My Lord' comes later." The man flashed a smile, sending a shiver down the woman's spine. Even the beard and moustache that masked Alexi's otherwise youthful features could do nothing to soften the fierce, piercing gaze of his eyes. Behind those eyes lay a fearsome intelligence burning with ambition.

    "I did not think you were one for appearances," the woman rejoined, hoping he did not notice how he still managed to unsettle her, even after almost a year's acquaintance.

    "Appearance is everything, my dear Alexandra, especially in these times we live in. If we are to survive the coming years, everything must proceed according to plan."

    Alexandra Doria nodded slowly in agreement. Less than a year earlier, Alexi Stukov had been little more than a curiosity, a strange foreigner who was clearly far from home that the locals could gossip about. When Alexandra first met him, he had claimed to be a Greek, yet spoke both Latin and Italian without the slightest hint of an accent. She had to admit he was talented, despite his eccentricities. A tidy sum of gold, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, was enough to assemble a collection of greedy mercenaries, ambitious second-sons, and reckless adventurers, all of which southern and central Italy was filled with these days, but it took a great deal more than coin to mold such a motley assortment into a true force to be reckoned with.

    "What if he refuses?" Alexandra queried, aware she was treading into uncertain waters. Alexi may have put on a calm front, but she had seen what damage could be done when his temper was raised.

    Instead, Alexi grinned. "Well, then poor Isaac's guest will be in for an abrupt surprise when they arrive."

    The side of Alexandra's eye twitched slightly as she resisted the urge to scowl. Isaakios da Romano, who Alexi for some reason referred to as Isaac, was a prime example of the sort of riff-raff he had assembled for his constant scheming of the past year. A relatively impoverished clergyman even for provincial priest, Isaakios zealous disposition was matched only by his inability to resist chasing skirts. He had been dispatched north months ago with a very similar objective, and was scheduled to return within the next few days.

    "If you say so," she replied tersely.

    Before the two could continue their conversation, a man clad in armor and a battered helmet appeared from one of the Colosseum's archways, waving once to catch Alexi's attention.

    "Seems Staurakios has brought His Holiness at last," Alexi remarked, nodding in recognition to the man before turning back to Alexandra. "You should go. This conversation is better kept private."

    Alexandra nodded without another word and slipped the hood back over her head before heading away into the ruins, vanishing out of sight. Alexi was alone only for a few moments until another figure appeared from under the same archway the soldier had just retreated back into.

    Dressed in what must have been his finest robes and boasting his regalia, Pope Alexander II seemed to glide across the ancient ruin with a dignity that defied his present circumstances. His face cleanly shaved and his expression one of serene indifference, he cast a remarkable contrast with Alexi, dressed a plain tunic, black belt, dusty trousers and worn leather boots.

    "Your Holiness," Alexi said politely, bowing slightly. The serene expression on Alexander's face nearly broke at the slight, but the facade held.

    "Lord Stukov," the pontiff responded simply.

    "I must admit that I am pleased to see Your Holiness was unharmed in tumult that's washed over the city these past few days," Alexi continued, smiling broadly.

    The Pope remained silent for a moment, as if picking over each word carefully in his head. "Yes, it seems something upsets the mood of the common people quite severely. Your... colleagues have informed my advisors that the problem extends well into the countryside, even into Orvieto."

    "I assure you, I will use whatever influence I might have with these rebellious scoundrels to shield Your Holiness from harm."

    "I'm sure."

    Alexi cleared his throat, slapping his hands together as if in anticipation. "Some friends of mine have suggested that Piombino still remains undisturbed by disloyal elements, Your Holiness."

    Alexander snorted derisively. "For someone who has plotted for so long, you lack subtlety. If you wish, cart me to Piombino under armed guard like you brought me here!"

    "You misunderstand, Your Holiness," Alexi replied in soothing tones, unperturbed by the sudden outburst. "I do not seek to exile you, but to help you."

    "You Greeks have curious ways, if this is how you seek to offer assistance," the Pope scoffed incredulously, his serene expression now completely gone.

    "I admit my methods may be considered unorthodox," Alexi replied, suddenly growing serious. "But we both know that times are changing, and the Church must adapt to the years ahead. Christendom cannot afford German usurpers or doctrinal squabbling. It needs strong leadership to guide the helm. My demonstration yesterday only served to show just how fragile your position is, and just what I can do for you."

    Once again the Pope did not respond immediately. "Just what..." he began slowly, "are you proposing here?"

    "You will transfer all temporal authority in the counties of Rome and Orvieto to me," Alexi said quickly. "You will also retire to Piombino, and publicly proclaim my stewardship of central Italy in my hands."

    "You have said nothing about what you will do for the Church."

    "Of course, even in Piombino, you will retain your position as pontifex maximus, bishop of Rome, and so on,” Alexi continued, rolling his hand airily. “You will have in me a powerful noble lordship to enforce your doctrinal decisions. I will be the shield against meddling Germans and anti-popes. I will make war on the heathens and schismatics, and convert them to the Church. I will fund the construction of churches, monasteries, convents, both here and in the country. Your enemies shall be my enemies."

    "You..." Alexander stammered. "You speak as if you will become my vassal."

    "No," Alexi replied forcefully, staring directly at the Pope. "I will not kneel to you."

    "And if I refuse?"

    The harshness of his expression faded, and Alexi chuckled again, but the sound rang hollow. "Then your Piombino cage will not be gilded, the Church will be gripped by another power struggle, any hope of reform will be forgotten for years, and all your work these past five years will be undone."

    Alexander squirmed slightly under Alexi's penetrating stare as he contemplated the offer. Finally, with a sigh of resignation, he spoke. "Very well, Lord Stukov, I accept your... 'offer.' For the sake of the Church, I accept."

    "Splendid!" Alexi exclaimed, stamping his foot against the ground in delight. "We can look over the details later. For now, I believe there's a crowd gathering outside to hear you speak."

    "You seem to have planned for everything, Lord Stukov," the Pope sighed in exasperation as they turned to leave together. "Perhaps you truly will be able to do what you promised."

    Alexi laughed genuinely for the first time since he stepped into the Colosseum. "You have no idea."




  4. #4
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    Very good. I should probably go back and read the previous parts, but it is more exciting to read this and be (like most of the characters) unsure of Stukov's background.
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    For those of you who are curious, this AAR represents a second attempt at a CK AAR after the abandonment of its namesake several years ago. Certain modifications have been made, as will become obvious in time (dynasty names, characters, titles, etc.). This AAR also uses an early version (v0.7) of Fiftypence's wonderful Mappa Regnorum mod, which can be found in the Crusader Kings modding forum.

    Feel not just free, but encouraged, to post any comments and criticisms you may have as the story progresses. It's been years since I've written a narrative story, so I'd like to know how I'm doing, plus comments help motivate me forward.

    Alfredian: Glad to hear you're enjoying things so far. It shouldn't be neccesary to read the previous AARs to know what's going on here, though I hesitate to explain why at the risk of spoiling anything.

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    January 3, 1067

    Alexi Stukov sighed contentedly as he reclined against a chair, eyes closed and feet propped up rudely on the dining room table in front of him. Aside from several other chairs running down the length of the table, the room was completely bare. Motivated by his indignation at his abrupt expulsion from Rome, Pope Alexander II had been prompt in packing up nearly everything valuable, or not nailed down, from the Lateran Palace.

    It was just as well, Alexi mused. He had not yet decided whether he would take up permanent residence in the pontiff’s former residence, lest the charade of 'Lord Steward of Rome' be compromised. He had toyed with the idea of erecting a new lodging on the Palatine Hill, or perhaps on the grounds of the future Vatican City.

    It was a peculiar situation Alexi found himself in. Bred since birth to rule the empire forged by his namesake, fate, it seemed, had something else in store for him. He had by no means intended to make his appearance in the wretched, squalid Dark Ages, but after more than a year struggling to discover the cause of the malfunction that had brought him to medieval Rome, he was no closer to finding a way back home.

    At first he had hesitated to make his presence felt and disrupt the timeline as a consequence. Temporal mechanics was one of the few subjects he enjoyed only a cursory understanding of, and even the best minds of his era had been no closer to unlocking the true secrets of time travel. Some postulated that time travel was essentially impossible, and that the traveler would simply create a separate timeline. Whether or not that was true, Alexi had finally concluded that it made little difference either way. His spectacular reversion back into realspace had no doubt irreversibly polluted the course of history. Already, he had detected subtle divergences that might ultimately prevent the empire's formation in the 20th Century.

    "From a certain point of view, it's better this way," he mumbled under his breath to himself. It was likely he could still complete his mission, albeit in a manner far different than he had originally intended. But the task rising before him was significantly greater. The limitations in infrastructure, communication, industry, population, and ideology, to say nothing of the risks to his own life posed by poor sanitation, food, and medicine, made building an empire practically an act of futility.

    At least it will keep the boredom away, he thought.

    Alexi was pulled from his daydreaming by the sound of a sharp knocking against a door to his left. Without a word the door was thrown open, and Staurakios Bobone, an unremarkable-looking man with short brown hair and a perpetual tight-lipped expression, stepped into the room. Glancing over, Alexi frowned, feigning annoyance. Staurakios was not exactly the brightest spark, but he made up for it with his loyalty. Alexi had been lenient with his co-conspirators when it came to matters of protocol and decorum, but now that he was 'Lord Steward,' some standard would have to be created.

    "News from Isaac, I presume?" Alexi asked.

    Staurakios nodded. "Aye, m'lord. He arrived at the palace just now."

    Alexi arched an eyebrow and hefted his feet off the table, straightening his posture. "He's back in Rome already? Typical of him to show up unannounced," he snorted.

    "Should I keep him waiting then?"

    "Yes," Alexi sighed, combing his fingers through his hair. "I doubt he has any worthwhile news anyway. Did he say whether his mission was a success?"

    Staurakios grinned. "He did. Your bride's waiting for you in the next room."

    "Is that so?" Alexi replied, his eyebrows shooting up in a look of surprise. "Well then," he continued, clearing his throat. "Send her in, and leave us in private."

    Staurakios nodded enthusiastically and retreated back into the next room. A few moments later, a woman stepped inside slowly, her features hidden beneath a veil. Alexi could tell from her bearing that she was, unsurprisingly, clearly confused and out of her element.

    Alexi continued to regard her silently as she made her way toward the table. Though she kept her head low, he could start to make out her features more clearly. From a quick, appraising glance, she seemed to have a healthy figure, her face well-proportioned and her blonde hair was piled up in well-maintained curls. As she stopped at the table, he caught her glance at him furtively. Alexi was struck by the depth of her gaze. Though her situation was not exactly enviable, the woman's eyes seemed to reflect a great sadness that went deeper than her present condition.

    She looks like a child, he thought, even though she's only eight years younger than me.

    "Ingrid Svendsdottir Knytling?" he intoned formally.

    "My Lord," she replied in shaky Latin, bowing her head even further.

    "Welcome to Rome!" he said in Danish, breaking into a wide smile.

    Ingrid's head snapped up, her eyes wide in surprise at the abrupt shift. "Y-you speak my people's language?"

    "Just enough to get by with," Alexi waved dismissively, before gesturing toward the seat standing next to her. "Please, my dear, sit down. You're probably exhausted from the journey."

    "I...yes," she stammered, before nodding her head slightly and sitting down. "Thank you."

    As Alexi continued to watch her, he could not hide his amusement. One of the first things he had recognized when he elected to make his grab for power was the need for an heir to carry on his work. His dynasty had never been particularly selective about who a Stukov could marry, save for a few criterion to help maintain propriety, but he suspected that in the 11th Century, having a royal princess as a wife did far more for his position than had to chosen some commoner. He had chosen Ingrid for no precise reason, save for the fact that her father's kingdom was far enough way that he would be willing to send one of his daughters to marry some 'Steward of Rome' based on nothing more than a Roman cleric's word.

    That she was young, pretty, and historically insignificant enough that their marriage would not disrupt the timeline substantially was only an added bonus.

    "I understand what you must be feeling right now," Alexi said sympathetically. "Here you are, in a foreign land with no one you know, expected to marry a man you have never even heard of before."

    Again, Ingrid hesitated, her eyes darting quickly as her mind kicked into gear. "I... it is not important, my Lord."

    "Alexi."

    "W-what?" she looked up in confusion again.

    "My name," he said, chuckling softly to himself. "It's not 'My Lord.' Please don't be afraid to use my name. And don't say things like 'it's not important' again. How you feel is important."

    "I see..." Ingrid responded tentatively, fidgeting slightly in her seat under Alexi's bemused gaze. "This isn't how I expected things."

    "I don't suppose it is," Alexi grinned, before his expression suddenly became serious again. "Still, I will be honest with you. I had my agent negotiate this marriage for practical reasons. Your dowry, your status as a royal princess, and, of course, to sire an heir."

    Ingrid simply nodded wordlessly, hiding her shock at Alexi's bluntness well.

    "So of course," he continued, "This marriage isn't going to be a passionate love affair, at least not to begin with anyway. And we don't need to rush into anything. After the wedding, take your time settling in, get to know me better, and so on. Sound fair to you?"

    Ingrid remained silent for several moments, gazing down pensively at her lap. Finally, she looked up, meeting Alexi's gaze without faltering. A smile appeared on her lips, and she nodded slowly. "Very well, Alexi," was all she said, offering her hand out to him.

    Smiling warmly, Alexi took the hand of his bride-to-be and kissed it without another word.


  7. #7
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    Good beard and a good nose.
    The world shall tremble.

    Good to have you back making CKaars!

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    February 13, 1068

    Alexi was thankful he could barely see a few meters ahead of himself as he crept forward in the darkness of the night, struggling in vain to keep his boots from sinking into the sand. The moon above was a mere crescent sliver, nearly perfect for the nocturnal operation he had planned. It also hid the fact that Alexi Stukov, Lord Steward of the Papal States and the City of Rome, was shaking from head to toe.

    Alexi was no coward, he assured himself; he had faced life-and-death situations before. The mere act of hurling oneself into the swirling vortex that had deposited him in this time period had itself been a massive gamble. He had commanded armies, directed campaigns, even participated in battles. He had not even hesitated to wade into a mob of rioting Roman peasants during his bid for power.

    But creeping through the darkness now, surrounded by a select group of soldiers, seemed different. They represented the men of Rome's new army, on its very first excursion into hostile lands. Unlike the feudal levies of the surrounding territories, they were a more professional fighting force, better trained, better equipped, and, hopefully, better led. He was responsible for their fates.

    But it was not the weight of responsibility that caused him to shiver in his armor. Indeed, he would gladly order all of them to their deaths if it would accomplish his goals. Rather, it was what these men, slipping, stumbling, and groping their way along, represented. Failure here would be an inauspicious start, a blemish on the reputation of the empire Alexi wanted to forge.

    Plus, Alexi thought, a grin spreading across his face, It's just so exciting!

    After the wedding with Ingrid, Alexi had been true to his word and given her the time she needed to adjust to the situation. Their honeymoon, Alexi imagined, had not exactly been a conventional one for the era. Ingrid's youth and his own conditioning meant there was no hurry to sire an heir. The months had gone by, each accustoming themselves to each other, settling in to what Alexi liked to think was more a partnership in running the affairs of Rome. Though her upbringing was more religious, she quickly found a knack for diplomacy and took up the business of Rome's chancellery, bringing a semblance of order to the chaos surrounding the Pope's departure from the city.

    After just under six months, Ingrid was ready.


    With that matter brought to a satisfactory conclusion for the time being, Alexi had turned his gaze further abroad. Ingrid was not the only person he had made promises to. Since Alexi's sincerity was in serious doubt, it was important that he honor his obligation to expand the frontiers of Christendom.

    It was also an excellent pretext to conquer more land.

    The Arab states of the island of Sicily offered an excellent target for Rome's first war under Alexi's rule. Preparations for a military expedition had been underway since early June of 1067. Assembling a competent fighting force, gathering up ships and supplies to transport and sustain it had been more expensive than Alexi had initially anticipated, but he was quite pleased with the end result.

    The army that abruptly made landfall on December 1, 1067 had numbered probably no greater than 3,300 in total. Its target was Palermo, the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful realm on the island. The city's ruler, Ayyub ibn Ziri had not responded the surprise attack well. Rather than risk an open confrontation, Ayyub had taken the bulk of his force south into the Sicilian countryside to wait, while the rigors of the siege of Palermo wore down the invaders.

    Against an ill-disciplined, stupid, or impatient opponent, it might have worked. Alexi was none of those things.

    Alexi was abruptly pulled from his thoughts as he stumbled again when his boot sank into the sand. The protective layer of chainmail rattled noisily despite the added layer of leather padding as he yanked his foot free. Around him, his soldiers were having the very same problems; swords clanged against shields, men uttered grunts and curses, and armor scraped. Were it not for the sound of the waves crashing against the shore just a few meters away, Alexi had no doubt the plan would have ended disastrously.

    Slowly, after what seemed like an eternity, Alexi and the party of soldiers found their way to the city walls. As Alexi watched, a man, little more than a shade, made his way down the line of men toward him. In the faint moonlight, Alexi could barely make out Staurakios' features underneath an officer's helmet.

    "The gate's just ahead," Staurakios whispered close to Alexi's ear. "No sign of an alarm yet."

    Alexi nodded his head enough for the general to discern it in the darkness as he pondered the situation.

    "The men are getting nervous," Staurakios pressed.

    "If Alexandra's agents cannot be trusted," Alexi hissed in a hushed tone. "Then the soldiers' nerves will be the least of our worries."

    "But can they be trusted?"

    Alexi hesitated momentarily before replying, smiling despite the situation. "If they can't, the army's camped close enough that we can sprint back."

    For the next several minutes, the soldiers remained frozen in place, eyes darting about, following every imagined sound and ray of moonlight reflected on armor or weapon. Finally, from the other side, the scuffle of feet against the dirt could be heard from behind the wall even over the roar of the sea. Alexi was close enough to discern several voices speaking, a series of muffled cries, and the sound of several heavy weights dropping to the ground.

    "Under the light of the crescent moon..." a voice sounded out from the other side of the door. Hurrying, Alexi rushed over to the door.

    "...a tyrant will meet his end," Alexi finished the codephrase. An instant later, the door began to swing inward, groaning softly on its hinges. A man standing on the other side ushered them forward, Alexi taking the lead. Scanning the surroundings as he stepped through, he was greeted by a small contingent of a half dozen Arabs armed with clubs and daggers, a trio of town watch laying face-first in the dirt before them.

    "Your timing was perfect," Alexi said in Arabic as he passed by the man at the gate.

    Stepping off to the side, Alexi turned and watched as the remainder of the group hurried in. Staurakios soon appeared from the gate.

    "Follow the guides to the main gates," he ordered. "I want this city flying our banner by sunrise."


    -----

    Five hours later

    Gazing out across Palermo from the city's walls, Alexi smiled with grim satisfaction, arms crossed over his chest as the first rays of sunlight began to appear in the east. Roman banners fluttered from all points on the wall and the major city landmarks in the gentle morning breeze rolling in from the Mediterranean. A few fires sparked in the fighting the night before continued to burn, adding thick pillars of smoke in some quarters.

    Alexi turned his head and nodded in recognition as Staurakios approached, his face covered in dirt, grime, and specks of what he assumed was someone else's blood.

    "You did well last night," Alexi said.

    Staurakios shrugged slightly. "It was hardly a difficult fight," he demurred. "We caught most of the garrison with its pants down."

    Alexi nodded slightly. He was right, of course. The infiltration team had rapidly overpowered the men guarding the main gatehouse, but no one could miss the sight of the Roman army sweeping out of its encampments and toward the city. An alarm had been raised, too late to retake the walls, but early enough to drag the fighting out for several hours.

    "Are the men behaving themselves?" he asked as several screams of agony echoed from somewhere below.

    "As well as we hoped for. The looting's under control now, and none of the turncoats have complained, at least not yet."

    Alexi smirked. "Do I detect a note of disapproval in your voice, my friend?"

    "They're traitors, my lord," Staurakios replied, scowling in intense disapproval. "If they turned on the Ziri for a few coin, what stops them from trying the same with us?"

    "Oh, they won't," Alexi chuckled confidently. "They've thrown their lot in with us. If they don't want to find their heads mounted on spikes, they'll have to keep us around for protection."

    Staurakios simply grunted, unconvinced by the explanation.

    "Besides," Alexi continued with a grin. "What sort of example would we be setting? Good deeds must not go unrewarded. Now, have them all assembled at the city center for me to speak with. The people of this city deserve to know who opened the gates for their new master."

    Staurakios smiled and saluted, turning on his heel to carry out Alexi's order.

    Not a bad start.


  9. #9
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    What kind of garrison has their pants down during a siege?

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    Enewald: Not a particularly good one, I'll grant you that. Though even besieged soldiers have to sleep every now and then.

    -----


    December 24, 1068

    Alexi shifted in his saddle, smiling widely as he gazed out from his commanding position in the hill surveying the field. Arrayed before him in several clusters was a large portion of Alexi's Sicilian army, a hodge-podge mixture of the professional corps he had brought with him from the mainland the year before and levies of local militia, men who had been persuaded or coerced into serving their new overlord following ibn Ziri's crushing defeat at Agrigento in April. They were too scattered and disorganized at the moment for a perfect count, but Alexi estimated there to be approximately four thousand present.

    Scattered under foot were the remains of the last Arab standing army in Sicily. Bodies littered the scene, many of them with arrow shafts protruding at odd angles, while most of the rest fell facing away from the Roman lines.

    Despite his rough numerical parity at the time of the battle, the sheik of Trapani, ibn Al-Hawlas, had assembled little more than an armed mob. After the crushing defeats Al-Hawlas' ally, ibn Abbad, had sustained at Siracusa, such foolishness deserved to be punished. Alexi had taken great relish ordering each successive volley of arrows into the hapless rabble. It had taken no more than an hour, but the Arab force had broken under the withering barrage. A full-frontal cavalry charge lead by Staurakios delivered the final blow, leaving the Roman force practically unbloodied.


    After his victory over Palermo, Alexi Stukov turned his gaze on the city of Siracusa. Realizing that the whole island was in imminent danger from this new Christian army, the two remaining Arab lords of the island, Al-Hawlas of Trapani and Abbad of Siracusa, had allied in the common defense, though with little success.


    Looking out of place in armor, Isaakios da Romano sauntered his mount up beside Alexi's. "Seems Staurakios had finished his pursuit of the leftover heathens," he observed, pointing to a rising cloud of dust off to the south.

    Alexi nodded with a grunt of approval, squinting as he stared at the approaching cloud. "He did well today. He will be rewarded once this war is finished."

    "He performed well the entire campaign, my lord," Isaakios added. "He carries out his orders well."

    Alexi merely barked a laugh and nodded. Alexi had overseen the conduct of most aspects of the campaign personally, which gave his subordinates scant opportunity to distinguish themselves. Orchestrating the operation of such small contingents of soldiers, with imperfect communications, the constant fears of logistics, foraging, and desertion, and the fickle matters of morale and luck all fascinated Alexi. Accustomed to laying siege to entire worlds, maneuvering vast armadas, and deciding the fate of billions, this whole war seemed positively quaint.

    Alexi shifted once again in his saddle, grimacing slightly and running his fingers through his hair.

    "Any subordinate who can speed the end of this fight deserves reward," Alexi finally responded. "After all, my son needs to see his father."

    Alexi had received the letter from Ingrid while outside the walls of Siracusa. Knowing the state of medieval medical practice, Alexi had worried more with each passing month that some mishap would befall his wife. So it was with great relief that he read she survived her first pregnancy. Not only that, but she had even more welcome news for him.


    An heir is born.


    Alexi recognized that, given how deplorable health and sanitary standards were in the Middle Ages, there was a great chance that the infant Nicholas would not even live long enough for his father to return home and see him. Unpleasant as the thought was, it had to be contemplated. All possible contingencies had to be planned for. Sentimentality bowed before the responsibilities Alexi owed to his mission.

    But every Stukov deserves the chance to prove himself... he thought wistfully.

    The lead squadron of Roman cavalry continued to ride closer to Alexi's position atop the hill as other contingents broke off to encamp. Within moments, he could distinguish individual faces. Wearing a facade of cold dispassion, Staurakios rode at the head of the group, flanked by two ragged-looking men jostling about perilously in their saddles.

    "My lord," Staurakios saluted after bringing his mount to a disciplined halt several paces from Alexi. "The heathen armies lie broken before you. Those who escaped the fury of our arms in this battle today have been run down, including these two fools."

    "Al-Hawlas and Abbad, my lord!" Isaakios exclaimed in delighted surprise.

    "The two graciously conceded to accept your... judgment," Staurakios added, as soldiers dragged the two men off their horses and walked them toward Alexi. Bald and sporting a moustache that drooped down the sides of his face, Abbad was sweating profusely and trembled with fear. His counterpart, his beard neatly trimmed despite the specks of blood and grim of battle marring his face, struck a far more respectable bearing.

    Alexi smirked, his mind immediately springing to life as he assessed both of them. Al-Hawlas, despite his mistakes, had proven himself to be a frustratingly tenacious foe, who had spurned Alexi's generous offers of vassalage several times, even when it was clear Trapani could not be held. He was also the guiding force between the alliance that had dragged this campaign out for months. Abbad, however, looked as if he would accept any humiliation or indignity to save himself now.

    "Greetings, your lordships," Alexi began, looking down his nose at the two men. "It gives me great satisfaction to see the two of you in this condition, and to inform you that you will never rule a square inch of Sicilian soil ever again."

    "Your vile aggression will be punished in the afterlife," Al-Hawlas spat, causing Abbad to shake ever more violently.

    "I'm sure," Alexi responded, doing his best to intone his complete disdain. "Though I wonder what punishment you will receive once you are no longer among the living for your utterly imbecilic generalship today."

    "If I may be so bold, my lord," Isaakios interjected. "But why waste your time on these worms? They are beaten, their lands belong to Christendom now. Send them to Hell."

    "My thoughts exactly," Alexi agreed cheerfully, slowly unsheathing his sword.

    "No!" Abbad howled in terror, falling to his knees. "Have mercy on me, great one! I-I can help you rule this land. I will be your humble servant, I swear upon the name of my family?"

    Alexi arched his eyebrow. "Will you now?" he said thoughtfully. "I suspected as much. And I do suppose a collaborator like you will make my new regime a touch more palatable for the local population."

    Before Abbad could utter a word, Alexi lurched forward in his saddle and swung his sword in a great downward arc. The blade connected with a sickening thud, sending a spurt of blood into the air. Al-Hawlas stared in disbelief as Alexi yanked the sword from Abbad's shoulder, the corpse crumpling into a messy heap in the dirt.

    "Untie him," Alexi ordered, making a slight gesture with his free hand toward Al-Hawlas. "And someone clean this," he said, looking over his blood-stained blade, silently cursing himself for striking so hard as he felt a dull ache grow in his fingers.

    Al-Hawlas remained dumbfounded as two soldiers stepped forward to carry out Alexi's command. Rubbing his wrists idly, the former ruler of Trapani looked up from Abbad's body and stared wide-eyed at Alexi. "You will be free to go, though of course I expect you to leave this island," Alexi added.

    "Why?" was all the man could muster.

    Alexi gave a bemused laugh. "Because you are a man of principle, even if those principles make you myopic and stupid. He, on the other hand," Alexi continued, pointing to Abbad. "Is.... was a sniveling sycophant, who would have done anything to save his miserable existence. He annoyed me."

    Setting his sword aside, Alexi leaned forward in his saddle and grinned. "But you still have some worth to me. Go to North Africa, or the Holy Land, or wherever you can find refuge. Show them what happens to those who stand in my way. Show them the fate of those who will resist me to the last. The name of Alexi Stukov will be feared and respected. And you are as good a place to start as any."


    Alexi's newest conquests.

  11. #11
    Human Enewald's Avatar
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    I didn't know Nicola was a boys name.

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  13. #13
    Wait; is this the Stukov from Starcraft? If it is, that's awesome.

    Alexei seems to be doing extremely well in any case; conquering Rome and the majority of Sicily in a few years is a powerful feat.

    I'll definitely be following this.

  14. #14
    Field Marshal TC Pilot's Avatar
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    Enewald: Neither did I! That's what happens when Alexi leaves Rome for a few years; crazy things start to happen.

    Tommy4ever: Well, with support like that, how could I not keep going?

    SplendidTuesday: I can't blame you for drawing that conclusion. But no, this is not the UED commander Alexi Stukov from Starcraft. I stole the name many years ago for my very first AAR way back in HoI1, and just stuck with it because it has a nice ring to it.

    -----


    October 21, 1068

    Alexi closed his eyes and took a deep breath, sucking in the cool morning air before exhaling in a long, slow motion. Hands clasped behind his back, he strolled leisurely through the ancient Roman ruins. Every now and again, he could catch a glimpse of one of his bodyguards, shadowing him while still giving him enough space to give the illusion that he was alone. Ever since he had arrived on Earth, he had routinely wandered through these ruins, taking advantage of an opportunity that had been deprived him his whole life.

    Fidgeting with his hands slightly, Alexi's mind drifted back to the past ten months. After settling some of the more pressing issues regarding the conquest of Sicily, Alexi had hurried back to Rome to see his new son, leaving Isaac and Staurakios behind with most of the army to oversee a smooth transition to Roman rule. After a swift voyage, he arrived to find, greatly to his relief, that the birth had been without any complications. Both Ingrid and Nicholas were as healthy as Alexi could hope.

    Alexi stopped walking, staring down at a dilapidated brick wall, before which it was alleged the ancient emperors' throne stood. Half-covered by dirt and grass, there was nothing left now but broken slabs of stone. Alexi never thought he had ever truly loved anything before. His father's empire had always seemed a distant, inconsequential thing as he had grown to maturity. At times, he had even wondered if he even had the capacity to love. But as he held Nicholas in his arms that first day in Rome, with Ingrid smiling warmly from the corner of the room, he felt he better understood why his father had done what he did to him for all those years.

    What good is an empire that only lives as long as its founder? Alexi thought.

    If he dropped dead this very instant, Alexi had little doubt that history would remember him. But being remembered was not enough. He had to leave some lasting mark on the world, something that would defy time and continue on into the future. He would live on through his children, in some form or another.

    Nicholas would have to be raised carefully. Though his infant mind could not possibly grasp it, the responsibility now resting on his shoulders was immense. For now, he was the only heir to the Stukov bloodline.

    For now.

    Lingering for several more minutes amidst the ruins of the Palatine, Alexi continued his journey, backtracking toward the Forum. As he drew nearer, he caught sight of a man, looking worse than one of the many beggars, rushing through the ruins, followed closely by two town watch. One of Alexi's bodyguards, already far ahead, materialized from behind a stone pillar and dropped the man with a well-placed strike with the flat end of his sword, eliciting a light chuckle from him.

    The cost of the Sicilian war had been ruinous on the Roman treasury. The last of his initial wealth had long since been spent, and debts from the military expenditure of sustaining thousands of men in the field had skyrocketed. A slew of new taxes and the auctioning of some of Alexi's county property had kept the more demanding creditors appeased until coin could once again flow into the treasury, but such measures had not been kind to much of the local masses.



    As Alexi approached the downed beggar, the two town watches grabb him by his shoulders and roughly hefted him up. "On your knees, scum!" one of them snarled.

    "What crime did this man commit?" Alexi asked, crossing his arms and staring down at the man.

    "We caught this wretch trying to steal from a local merchant, my lord," the guard replied. "Forgive us for disturbing you, but he's quicker than he looks." Alexi simply chuckled and waved his hand dismissively.

    "It's not true!" the man blurted out suddenly. "That man is a..."

    The man could not finish his sentence as the second guard roughly belted him across the back of the head. "Hold your tongue, thief! Or we'll cut it out!"

    Alexi held up his hand, stopping the guard as he reached for his sword. "I don't think that will be necessary... for now. Let him speak."

    "Thank you, my lord," the man said, clutching the back of his head. "I had gone out to buy a new dress... for my daughter, you see. But that bastard, when he saw how I was dressed, he assumed I was a criminal, and called for the guards. I didn't know what to think... so I ran."

    "Does he have any stolen goods on him?" Alexi asked, glancing up at one of the guards.

    "No, my lord. But he could have gotten rid of it while running!" he quickly added.

    Alexi nodded and turned his gaze back on the man. "I don't suppose you have the coin with which you were going to buy this... dress?"

    The man stared mutely for a moment, before rifling nervously through his pockets. "Y-yes... er... it... it should be right here." Emptying out his pockets, the man looked up forelornly. "I... must have dropped it."

    Alexi snorted and nodded his head. "I've heard enough. Guards, take this thief away."

    "Father! No!" a voice cried out from behind them. Alexi turned to see where the new voice came from, and blinked at the sight of a woman being held off by two of Alexi's bodyguards.

    "Please, my lord! He's innocent!" the woman stared at him imploringly. For a moment, Alexi stared wordlessly at the sight before him. Despite her rather shabby attire, the young woman's figure looked like something from a sculptor's dream. Flowing auburn hair framed a perfect, unblemished face.

    "Let her through..." Alexi began haltingly, swallowing hard as he gestured her to approach.

    Smiling in relief, the woman stepped forward as the bodyguards moved aside. A few steps away from Alexi, she halted and bowed.

    Oh. Well isn't that interesting, he spoke inwardly, as a multitude of thoughts leapt unbidden into his mind.

    "He is your..." Alexi paused, frowning as he tried to put his finger on the right word. "...your father?"

    "Yes, my lord," she responded earnestly. "This all has to be some terrible misunderstanding. My father would never steal, even for me," she smiled invitingly, her eyes glittering.

    A part of Alexi's mind wondered how she knew her father had been accused of stealing. In different circumstances, he might have even voiced his suspicions. But, in the high-spirited days following his return from Sicily, Ingrid discovered she was pregnant again. For her sake, and for the sake of decency, he had not bedded with her since then.

    Nine months.

    "I see," Alexi said, returning her smile. "Yes... yes, I'm sure there's been some mistake." He paused, glancing back at the woman's father, whose expression betrayed a hopeful apprehension. "Perhaps it would be better for us to discuss this matter in a more private setting?"

    The woman's eyes darted briefly toward her father, then back at Alexi. The corners of her lips curled slightly, but that same inviting expression remained intact. "Of course, my lord," she replied.

    "Excellent," Alexi smirked. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a messenger approaching. Clearing his throat, he gestured to one of the gathered bodyguards. "One of my men will show you the way. I will be along in a moment."

    The woman bowed again, eliciting a sigh from him, before turning and following one of the soldiers. Alexi's gaze lingered on her as she retreated, before he turned to face the thief again.

    "Release this man," he ordered the guards. "You were right to suspect him, but clearly a mistake has been made."

    "I am in your debt!" the man groveled as the two guards let go of him. Alexi ignored him, turning instead to the messenger, who handed him a letter. Unrolling the piece of parchment, Alexi glanced through its contents, a grin slowly spreading across his lips.

    "A daughter," he whispered under his breath. "A second heir."

    Alexi quickly regained his composure, clearing his throat as he crumbled up the note and stuffed it in his pocket, Alexi looked up at the messenger again. "Inform them that I will be along shortly. I have a few matters to attend to first."

    Neither Ingrid nor his new daughter would be in any condition to see him just yet, Alexi told himself. Far better for him to arrive with unfrayed nerves and a clear head.

    Besides, what's the worst that could happen?


  15. #15
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    Ha, that was intriguing.
    You little pervert.

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    Enewald: Hey, even the evil masterminds of the world have their needs.

    Alfredian: I've kept the details of Alexi's arrival deliberately vague, but so far there has been no indication of anyone but him showing up.

    -----


    November 15, 1071

    Pope Alexander II sighed as he stared out the window overlooking the roofs of the town. Just barely visible beyond, Alexander could see a veritable forest of masts, indicating that the harbor of this small Italian settlement was packed with ships.

    "I trust your Holiness has had the opportunity to review the letters sent by Lord Stukov?" a female voice came from behind Alexander.

    Scowling, the Pope slowly turned away from the window toward the source of the voice, Alexandra Doria, dressed in a plain dress and her features concealed beneath a good. Her generally shabby appearance, perhaps a gesture of humility in Alexander's presence, belied her status as Alexi Stukov's invisible hand, the force that guided the Roman overlord's impressive network of spies and operatives and carried out his will.

    "I have found little else to occupy my time recently," Alexander replied obliquely, smothering the anger that welled up in him as he looked upon her.

    Compared to Rome, the town of Piombino was downright rustic, hardly the gilded cage Alexi had promised back in the Colosseum years before. Initially, the town lacked a place suitable for a man of Alexander's stature, so he had taken up residence in the nearby monastery of San Giustiniano. The move had lent some credence to the charade that Alexi had merely assumed control of the Papal States as 'Lord Steward,' and part of Alexander suspected he had been intentionally misled for just that reason.

    When he arrived, he had been met by his close friend and ally Hildebrand da Savona. Away in Orvieto during the upheavals in Rome, Hildebrand too had been expelled in Stukov's coup. But much to Alexander's surprise, he had found Hildebrand far more receptive to the usurper's arguments than he himself had been.

    It had taken many weeks of often heated argument before Hildebrand had at last persuaded him, reluctantly, that the Church could indeed profit from this new development. By at least appearing to shed his temporal authority, the Pope's influence and credibility in centralizing and reforming Church administration would only increase.

    Or so Hildebrand had argued.

    "Many great lords from across Christendom have journeyed to hear your Holiness speak," Doria chided, maintaining a deferential tone. "T'would be a shame to have journeyed so far in vain."

    "No pilgrimage is ever taken in vain," Alexander grumbled. "I will speak, and I suspect your master will be pleased with what it is I have to say."

    Despite his misgivings, Alexander conceded that Stukov had largely kept to his end of the bargain. The conquest of Sicily had come as an unexpected surprise, and the speedy and, more impressively, peaceful imposition of the Latin rites had been welcome news to the Pope's ears. Gold coin, too, continued to pour in, auguring well for the Papacy's accommodations in Piombino.


    As a gesture of goodwill, the Papacy dispatched substantial sums of money to Rome in 1071 gained through indulgences. Within months, a large portion of the population of recently-conquered Trapani staged a dramatic public conversion to Christianity.


    "Of course, your Holiness," Doria replied, bowing her head. "Your words will no doubt have a great impact on your audience's hearts and minds."

    Alexander nodded slightly and glanced back out the window. The vessels anchored in the harbor represented only a small sum of the distinguished individuals arriving in Piombino. Stukov had done much to promote the so-called Council of Piombino. Besides many Roman elites, nobles and clergy from the rest of Italy would be in attendance. Hildebrand, who had departed the town to take up his new role as Bishop of Cahors, had leaned heavily on the nobility of southern France and managed to persuade even Duke Guillaume de Toulouse to attend. Representatives from as far afield as Denmark and the Norman King Robert of England were also in attendance, giving the Council an international prestige singularly rare for the age.

    "For good or ill," Alexander muttered under his breath.

    "Holiness?" Doria asked.

    "Nothing," the Pope snapped, turning back to regard Doria with a hint of annoyance. "But remind your master that I do this because I believe it will best serve the interests of the Church and the Christian nation as a whole, and not because it pleases the 'Lord Steward.'"

    "But of course, your Holiness," Doria bowed.

    Again, Alexander sighed, exhaling deeply. "Then let us begin."

    -----


    Alexi Stukov sat perfectly still and stared up at the church pulpit, where Pope Alexander II continued his speech. Crammed into this small church, the largest Piombino had to offer at the moment, were almost five hundred various nobles and clergymen from Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany, and Denmark. Many, admittedly, had made the journey only out of deference to Alexi, while most of the remainder owed their presence to Bishop Hildebrand's zealous advertisements.

    Patiently, Alexi listened as the Pope finished criticizing the abuses of some clergymen and elaborating upon the his reforms. Out of the corners of his eyes, Alexi could tell most of the temporal lords were truly bored. Duke Guillaume, in particular, was eyeing Hildebrand with mounting anger.

    Alexi quickly slammed down on the urge to smirk. His expression continued to betray no emotion, no sign of what was about to come.

    "Yet God is not without his mercy," Alexander continued, beginning his transition toward the Council's chief purpose. "Let those who unjustly wage private war upon the faithful now turn their sword upon the infidel. For these past many years, I have received with growing sorrow and trepidation ill tidings from our brethren in the East, which you are no doubt aware of, news shocking to hear yet too grave to be left unspoken."

    A general murmur rippled through the gathered crowd. Alexi allowed himself to glance around, furrowing his brow as if to show some hint of confusion.

    "A new and fearsome foe has arisen from the East. The infidel Saracens, defiant in the face of God's righteous word, have marched in great number against Romania. In their ferocity and rapacity, they have inflicted upon our noble brothers many terrible defeats. Many ancient and holy Christian places have fallen to their sword, and countless of the faithful suffer under their yoke."

    Alexi smiled inwardly. Though Alexander remained reluctant in cooperating with him, Alexi could detect genuine anger rising in the Pope's tone.

    Certainly, the situation in the east was not a rosy picture. Though his arrival in this timeframe had apparently caused considerable disruption in the Byzantine Empire's history, the general situation had remained the same. Under the incompetent rule of Emperor Michael VII, the Empire was rapidly fracturing against Alp Arslan's relentless onslaught. Alexi had received several requests from Constantinople for some sort of military cooperation. Preoccupied with events in Sicily as he was, he could offer little but his sympathies, even if he had wanted to.


    By 1071, much of Anatolia had been overrun by the Turks.


    "In light of these grave injuries," Alexander said, his voice growing louder as he extended arms out to the audience. "I, or rather God, beseech you noble lords to make this known to all parts of Christendom and persuade people of all rank and station, to march in aid to our faithful brothers! By the blessings of God, let the virtuous repel these vile barbarians by force of arms, so that they may once again walk amongst the holy places free from the odium of their false religion."

    Alexi nodded and voiced his approval, the noise mingling seamlessly with the growing response of the crowd.

    Alexander paused, his lips quivering, before he finally proceeded with the speech. "I say before you today, before the eyes of the Lord, that the Holy Land shall be freed from the sword of the infidel. Take up arms then, those among you greatest in their penitence to God, and carry out this great task!"

    On cue, Alexi leapt suddenly to his feet, making a great commotion amidst the packed rows of nobility. Holding his clenched fist aloft and staring up at the sunlit windows behind the pulpit, he cried out. "Deus vult!"

    Even before the words had finished ringing through the church, the crowd, brought to a stunned silence by the outburst, began echoing Alexi's words. Many dozen more sprang to their feet, while others repeated the exclamation.

    Taking his fist, Alexi held it firmly over his heart and loudly proclaimed "I swear that Jerusalem shall be free." His voice now drowned out, the Pope merely regarded Alexi. Their eyes locked. Alexi could tell the man grasped the magnitude of the forces he had just unleashed by his submission to Alexi’s scheme.

    Amidst the many cries and shouts of approval that were erupting from the Church, no one could hear him as he added, "And Jerusalem shall be mine."


  18. #18
    Human Enewald's Avatar
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    Now that is evil.
    Weak Romaioin might be good for you.
    They look like they be doing better than historically. Well, both sides have incompetent AI.

  19. #19
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  20. #20
    Awesome, Alexei is a dangerous schemer; I hope his gambit pays off.

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