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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning
Chapter 1: The First Few
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    At the dawn of the new year, five men stood waiting on the frozen coast. Last year, they had waited and received nothing. The year before, they also returned without a sign. A decade ago, their fathers held this vigil, as did their grandfathers, and on for centuries, each time returning empty handed. Yet still they waited, knowing that one year, the Gift of the First Few would finally arrive, long after the riven land was saved from eternal darkness.

    1588352594557.png

    Frobert was first to see the color in the ice. Jutting up from the coastline, flat white expanse to the southern horizon, the rising sun caught a rosy patch. He called his companions over, and excitedly approached. There, a rime-covered body emerged from the frozen surf. The five men quickly wrapped the figure in furs and excitedly rushed back to the village.

    Hildoin took over, insisting that the body be taken to the center of the village. Most of the Kemi Tribe lived in small wooden huts, partially buried in the earth to save warmth. Small hovels for a poor people. Yet they had spent centuries building a larger, grander building. A building bedecked with furs, colored cloth, high rafters, and a giant hearth. The fires were kept lit throughout the winter, and yet, the building remained empty.

    Ragambald called ahead, directing the villagers to open the doors, clear the way to the hearth. Berold picked up collections of firewood and tended the flames, warming the cavernous room. Gualter carefully placed the body down by the hearth, picked away the largest wisps of frost, and stood watch as ice melted away.

    The villagers gathered around expectantly. What happened? There was a body? Are they dead? It's a girl? A young woman? Red hair? Are you sure she's not dead?

    A sudden gasp echoed through the chamber, and the woman suddenly woke and sat up with a start. She pulled the furs around her body, growing increasingly damp as she thawed, and staggered to her bare feet.

    Hildoin called forth, "All hail the First Few!"

    Everyone responded, "All hail the First Few!"

    She stood, confused, shivering, wearing only the furs she clung to, as meltwater dripped from her coppery tresses.

    Hildoin continued, "All hail the Chieftess!"

    "All hail the Chieftess!"

    1588378290027.png

    The world rejoiced. Across all lands, foundlings were discovered on every plain, atop every mountain, deep in every forest. The Kolans and Hålogalanders deemed that they were the First Few, come to lead their people to a new prosperity. The priests calculated that seven hundred and sixty-nine years had passed from when the lands were saved from perpetual disunity and darkness, and that a new golden age had begun. Central barrow-halls were filled for the first time with light and merriment.

    The Chieftess had a name: Madelgarde. She listened with bewilderment to Hildoin's prophecies, but settled into her high-backed seat and gracefully accepted the fussing of an entire village devoted to her well-being. Mead flowed for days, she dined on suckling pig, and met the gaze of each reveler with wide, friendly eyes.

    Days past, and Madelgarde walked through the large hearth-chamber of Kemi, the home built for her. She had outfits, coats, dresses available to wear, but none amused her more than simply wrapping herself loosely in the furs she first awoke to find herself in. The furtive stares of the men were a thrilling jolt, each swallow and moment of distraction a guilty pleasure.

    Once the basic understanding of the lay of the land had been discovered, she invited her entourage, the five men who pulled her from the ice, to dine with her. She found an enjoyable, haphazard way to pull her furs around her, some fashion that looked as if they would slip off at any time.

    "Good sirs, I am most grateful for your coming this evening. Now that I have rested and recovered, I must insist that we settle the first order of business at hand." She llicked a morsel of pork glistening at the end of a skewer and slowly waved it about, pointing at her rescuers. "I need a man."

    1588380515566.png

    The five gulped and remained silent as she leaned forward and looked into each one of their faces. "I need a man who will warm me, one who will speak with others of my kind and be my advocate far beyond the Kemi lands. And so... Gualter. You will do these things for me. Now let's enjoy dessert and then leave. Except for you, Gualter. We have much to discuss.

    As they lay together, Gualter explained who of the First Few emerged throughout the nearby lands.

    1588379244657.png

    Westrobothnia was blessed with Berengildis, pulled from a sea cavern with a shell in her hand, known for a sharp wit and calming demeanor.

    1588379397375.png

    The uplands of Lappland were hosts to Brunhild, retrieved from the hollow of a great oak, singing the hymns of the First Few.

    1588379554305.png

    A rock had split open near Rovaniemi, and Gisela emerged. Of all chieftesses, though, she brought only cruelty and an appetite to her chosen people. Her villagers wailed at the idea they should serve one such as she.

    1588379787549.png

    But none frightened Kemi as much as the First Few of Oulu to the south, a man who already showed skill with troops and money.

    Madelgarde smirked and stretched like a cat. No, she was sure Yehudah would not give her any trouble.

    1588381801546.png

    As winter slowly melted into spring, Madelgarde dressed properly and headed out to the fields to meet with Berold.

    "I can't stop thinking of our poor neighbors in Rovaniemi," she fretted. "Why should they be so unlucky to have someone who sees others only as tools to her own sense of power?"

    "We would not dream to doubt the wisdom of the First Few," he replied.

    "Well, that's why you have me, isn't it?" Madelgarde ran a finger across Berold's bicep. "I think we should liberate Rovaniemi from Gisela, and I will take care of both villages' needs."

    "I'll raise the warriors and head out."

    "No, wait for a bit. The time is not yet right. Let the snow melt longer. No need to fight in the frigid air. Hildoin will want to read the flight path of the birds to tell us more about when to strike."

    "As you wish."

    Madelgarde's patience proved helpful, as Gualter's travels bore sudden fruit: Vilnius and Vycheda reached out asking for non-aggression pacts, which were welcomed, if too distant to be of practical use. But then, Gualter found success closer to home:

    1588382498126.png

    Erich, hmm? Madelgarde remembered this for later. Yehudah was proving a harder target than expected, and she was sure she couldn't hold up the pretenses for two men quite as deftly. Yet. And still, Erich eagerly entered into an alliance with Madelgarde.

    But then, even greater success was had:

    1588382797903.png

    This was the sign she was looking for. Brunhild welcomed Madelgarde and the two agreed to work together for their mutual benefit. Lappland joined the war for Rovaniemi, and Madelgarde and Brunhild's warriors met to rout Gisela's men and take the village for themselves.

    Madelgarde left the battle and siege in Gualter's capable hands. She then headed south under cover of darkness and stealthily made her way into Yehudah's grand hall.

    She hid herself all night in the hall as Yehudah listened to the concerns of his villagers. She listened to demands for recompense between farmers, of tales of a cow wandering onto another's lands. She waited as he dismissed everyone for the night, hiding in the shadows.

    "Always at each other's throats, they are..." he muttered to himself.

    "Makes you want a throat of your own to be at, doesn't it?" Madelgarde revealed herself, her slender neck, and a long trail of flesh down her chest.

    Yehudah turned with a start, then relaxed. "Madelgarde, how do you always manage to get away? Aren't you needed back home? Don't you have a siege to lead?"

    "My husband is taking care of the siege. Brunhild is with him."

    "Doesn't he get suspicious? Isn't he your spymaster?"

    "Frobert is spymaster now. He has better eyes. And besides, the people have no idea where we come from, do they? Why wouldn't they just not consider when we disappear?"

    Yehudah raised a finger. "They... We shouldn't speak of them."

    Madelgarde grasped Yehudah's finger and placed it on the top of her sternum. "Then we shouldn't speak."

    1588383160698.png

    Erich needs to be next, she decided.

    And within the month, the north was as conquered as the south.

    1588384410475.png

    Madelgarde rode out to accept Gisela's surrender. She looked over the fallen chieftess in pity. "Please, Gisela, you were supposed to care for the people. Aren't we?"

    "Care for them? Certainly. I knew what I was doing. Yes, maybe I was strict, maybe I was cruel. But this world's golden age is not going to come through our arrival alone. You're already doing so much more, marrying into the commoners, reaping the benefits of alliance near and far."

    "Of course. Everything we do is in service to the First Few and for the people."

    "Oh, Madelgarde, my dear Few sister, are you even aware what you are doing? You're doing me a favor."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Think of before, Mads. Surely you remember Gerbert."

    Madelgarde waved her hand in front of her face. "Not in front of everyone."

    "Oh, no, it's perfectly safe." Gisela pulled a scroll out from her bodice. "The Golden Boy was pulled from a seam of precious ore... in Kantalahti. So near. So very near."

    "I hadn't realized. How is he?"

    "Read it."

    Madelgarde opened the scroll and read.

    To my dear Few sister Gisela,

    The auspices of our emergence cannot be denied, and the weakness of your position is unenviable. The stars and paths of the reindeer in these lands make it clear: you were never meant to rule. For this reason I hereby declare upon our right as rulers of these people, that Rovaniemi is mine to rule. You will vacate your position and hand over the role of Chief to me. Your emergence is Stone, but mine is Gold.

    I and my multitudes approach. Your days are numbered, witch.

    Gerbert of the First Few, Chief of Kantalahti and Rovaniemi

    1588384521598.png

    Gisela cackled. "Have fun, Mads."
     
    Chapter 2: Few Sisters
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    Chapter 2: Few Sisters

    "Gualter! Gualter! How many warriors do we have?" Madelgarde ran into her husband's arms as he directed camp to be taken down.

    1588854616030.png

    "We have about 340 men, not counting Brunhild's forces."

    "And Gerbert? How many do they have?"

    "A thousand. They'll flank us the moment they meet us."

    "Let's go find Brunhild. Her men are still here! Maybe they can stay just a little while longer."

    Madelgarde mounted her horse and rushed over to Brunhild's camp on the other side of the river. She watched in urgent fear as most of the camp had already been uprooted. "No, no no no..." she muttered to herself. "Brunhild! Wait! There's still more!"

    A pair of guards held back her steed as she approached Brunhild's tent. "Patience, my lady," one of the Lapplander guards said. "Chieftess Brunhild in in her afternoon prayers. She will be out soon."

    Madelgarde nodded and waited.

    Soon enough, Brunhild emerged and embraced her. "Few Sister! So good of you to see me off. We did it! Gisela is no longer a problem. I'm sure you'll do a better job taking care of the villagers than she will."

    "Thank you, Brunhild, but... Can't you stay for a while longer?"

    Brunhild let her go and looked into her face. "I'm getting married, Madelgarde. I've accepted a proposal from Chief Lothar, up in Kola. You remember Lothar, don't you?"

    1588854652843.png

    Madelgarde scrunched her nose and looked around. The Lapplanders continued breaking down the camp, not paying attention to the two women.

    "Oh, sorry, yes," Brunhild whispered.

    "Oh! Lothar? In Kola? That's close, isn't it? Lothar has the Mark of Power too, doesn't he?"

    Brunhild inhaled. "He does, yes."

    "So he can come help, too, can't he?"

    "Madelgarde," she replied, placing a conciliatory hand on her shoulder, "He's not going to just call his village to war for the benefit of a friend of his wife. That's not how this works."

    "But you will come to my aid?"

    "After the wedding, yes. I will honor our alliance."

    "Thank you, Sister." Madelgarde wiped a tear from her face.

    * * * * *
    Dearest Erich of Naumadal,

    I am so thankful you welcomed my husband into your home. I feel relieved that you wish to maintain our burgeoning cooperation and relationship. I am compelled to write, however, because I am in danger. Gerbert of Kantalahti has sworn to come and attack my people and conquer my land. Please, I beg of you, come to my rescue. There is nothing more in this world that would bring me joy than seeing your beautiful face again, leading your men.

    In honor and love,
    Madelgarde


    * * * * *
    Dearest Madelgarde of Kemi,

    I am honor-bound to answer the call to arms. I can not bear to imagine harm coming to a single hair on your head, or to a single villager of your realm. My warriors and I march to your rescue. I shall not rest until I can see you again, safe and secure.

    Forever yours,
    Erich


    * * * * *

    1588854760093.png

    Winter came. Gualter pulled his men back first to Kemi and then continued the long, slow march to Lappland. Further afield, the Naumadalians crossed the mountains to meet with Kemi and Lapplander forces. The going was slow, through the cold and the snow. Gerbert arrived in Rovaniemi and sieged it down. Madelgarde and her allies finally met up in Westrobothnia, as Gerbert's men laid siege to the village in Kemi.

    As Naumadal arrived, Madelgarde rode out to meet with Erich, to secure the alliance.

    1588767485490.png

    Madelgarde, Gualter, Brunhild, and Erich joined their forces and marched into Kemi. Gerbert noted the size of the combined force, now nearly 2,000 men, and pulled back to Rovaniemi. Madelgarde rallied and continued the advance on Gerbert.

    One morning, Madelgarde bent over, suddenly dizzy and nauseous. Her first fear was camp fever, but soon it became clear it was something else, entirely:

    1588768247736.png

    Gualter was proud and happy for the entire advance on Rovaniemi. Madelgarde kept counting the days in her mind, and sent home for salt and ice from the surf she emerged from.

    As spring came to the land, the allied warriors descended on Rovaniemi village, and began the long, slow process of rooting out Gerbert's men. Gerbert had established outposts, saw the approaching allies, and met them in battle. Madelgarde felt the first kick inside her. She needed guidance.

    1588814565514.png

    Madelgarde and Brunhild rode fast into the forest in the dawn twilight from camp. Gualter had wanted to send guards, but they insisted their offering to the First Few must be made by themselves.

    The two chieftesses located the spot they were looking for. A low stone slab lay on the forest floor. Brunhild rubbed her hand over the stone's mossy covering, and it parted, revealing three stars carved into the surface.

    Brunhild nodded. "The offering can be placed here. I'll be waiting a distance away. You do remember the prayers?"

    "I do. Thank you, Sister. I was afraid I could never make the offering, in the middle of the war."

    Brunhild looked around. "No need to Sister me. You need the help."

    Madelgarde raised an eyebrow and Brunhild looked around. "It's not safe here. Gerbert probably knows this place as well. And his men aren't the only risk out here. There are wolves. Bears."

    "Bears? Do you think--"

    "The offering, Madelgarde. Let's do this and get home. For the sake of both our children." Brunhild lightly patted her own swelling belly, then turned and left the clearing, with perhaps the slightest scowl.

    Madelgarde swallowed and approached the stone. She retrieved the salt and ice from her bag, and poured shavings into each of the three stars.

    "It is I, Madelgarde of the Surf. I seek you. I beseech you, answer my prayer. Protect my child. You who saves the world, I ask for your continued guidance and protection you offer all."

    The salt began to glow a faint blue, visible against the first golden rays of dawn.

    "I beg of you, show favor on my child."

    The glow rose from the stone, suspending in the crisp morning air. The shadow of a triangle appeared between the three luminescent vertices. The floating shape pulsed. A voice was heard, clipped, aloof, transcendent. "User: Madelgarde. Domain: Kemi. Emergence: Surf. Password accepted. Welcome, Madelgarde. Request for child's beneficence received. Please designate form of request. Designate: Brawn. Beauty. Brain."

    As much as she understood the value of brawn or brains, all she could think of was everyone else who had gotten her here.

    "Beauty," she replied, voice trembling.

    "Beauty accepted," the spirits intoned. "Attention: Full effects may not be visible upon birth. Effects may also differ depending on father's source. Full mating with locals is still experimental at this time."

    "Wait! Does this mean Gualter is the father? Not Erich?"

    "Authorized service completed. Logging off." The stars' glow faded, the triangle disappeared, the sun announced its full force across the clearing.

    "No, no, wait..." Madelgarde fumbled in her pouch, looking for more salt, when Brunhild hastened to her side. She ran her hand over the stone again, the moss cover returning.

    "Time to go. Riders approach."

    "Can't I stay?"

    "No, now I'm protecting your child. We need to go, now."

    The two women mounted and rode back to camp. Madelgarde kept looking behind her, thinking of the stone, and of the spirits.

    The camp opened and welcomed the two back and sent off warriors to meet the last of Gerbert's men, before routing them.

    1588818224065.png

    The village was resecured, and they marched forth into Kantalahti.

    "My dear," Gualter started, "I know you wish to be here to bolster our spirits, but Kantalahti is no place for a woman with child. Please, head back home to Kemi. Erich and I can handle the forces from here. Get some rest.

    "Yes, my husband, so I shall." She gathered her belongings and prepared the ride back home. "Brunhild, won't you please join me? I'll have everyone toast you for the occasion. Really, I can't thank you enough for coming to my aid so much."

    Brunhild considered this. "A feast? For me?" She looked around. "All right, let's do it. Let's see how you live."

    1588818730932.png

    Kemi was bright with Madelgarde's return, and the central hearth was lit and welcome. She had boar and ice-fish and seal brought in for the feast. "This child has the hugest appetite," she explained.

    Brunhild laughed. "Our children need it. They'll be beasts in a new world."

    Madelgarde giggled. "I know you married to the Few, but I decided I wanted to keep my name and crest. Only the locals would allow for that. Not even Erich was willing to budge."

    "He had been following you around like a puppy. I've heard rumors about you."

    "All true, I'm sure!" Madelgarde chuckled. "But really, the locals are just as good as the Few."

    "What do you mean? Marrying Lothar hasn't been bad at all. He's mostly away in Kola, though."

    "Doesn't that get lonely?" Madelgarde rested her tilted head in her hand, curious.

    "Sometimes, I suppose?"

    Madelgarde looked over the villagers, all willing servants. Mostly men. Their loyalty without question. She turned to one, young, with blond hair and broad shoulders. "Yohann, come here." The lad obeyed, and she held out her plate. "Skewer my meat."

    Brunhild watched with astonishment as Yohann obediently reached down, sliced a bite sized portion from the boar haunch, placed it on a metal rod, and fed it to his chieftess. She could barely contain herself as Madelgarde then grabbed Yohann by the back of the neck and clamped her mouth over his. Coming up for air, she replied, "You really need to try the local meat."



    1588820280900.png

    Brunhild left later that week, hazy and oddly satisfied. It wasn't the only caller to the feast.

    1588820352922.png

    In the end, Madelgarde only laughed at how she and Yehudah always sneaked into each other's bedchambers somehow.

    Gualter came home victorious from Kantalahti, Gerbert surrendered, and Madelgarde gave birth to a son, named Gualtari, after his father.

    1588855031901.png

    Madelgarde took Gualtari with him on a trip to Lappland to call on Brunhild. She had also given birth to a son, Lothar.

    1588855262729.png

    The two new mothers embraced. "Madelgarde! So good to see you. And this is Gualtari! An honor to meet you, good sir."

    Madelgarde giggled. "We had to visit and see you and little Lothar. I do hope all is well."

    "It is. Lothar will be going to his father for his education. I'm sure he'll be well off there."

    Madelgarde bit her lip. "That will be good for him. It'll leave this place needing something to do."

    Brunhild inhaled and rubbed her temples. "I'm afraid I won't be available for another banquet, as lovely as that was."

    "Oh, that's all right. I wasn't planning something like that."

    Brunhild sighed. "All right, Surf Girl, what are you planning?"

    "Well, it's just that Gerbert's weak now that he's been defeated, and it's only right to make sure he doesn't try anything like that again."

    "Ah. Have you spoken to Erich? I'm sure he'll give you the support you need. Or perhaps Yehudah? Don't you have any more Few in your pocket? I've heard rumors about you and Waltgaud of Kainuu."

    "Please, Sister, the difference between dalliance and alliance is more than just the d."

    "Plenty of that, I'm sure," Brunhild retorted. "Fine. my warriors will join you one more time. But dear Madelgarde, you really need to learn how to handle these things yourself. We can't forever just jump to satisfy your whims."

    1588855390868.png

    The war went well. Erich, Brunhild, and Madelgarde made short work of Gerbert's men and forced him to submit.

    1588856198398.png

    And yet, with child, husband, lovers, and the servants of three villages, Madelgarde felt as lonely as ever.
     
    Chapter 3: Whose Land Is This, Anyway?
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    Chapter 3: Whose Land Is This, Anyway?


    Madelgarde caressed baby Genovefa, her second child by Gualter and first daughter. Ragambald, Chancellor, arrived to address her.

    "Milady, we have received news from Kem in the southeast. Guadulf of the Dew has died."

    "Guadulf? One of the Few? Gone? Who killed him?"

    "He died of the flu."

    Madelgarde swallowed. "I..." her voice trembled. "We are mortal, like everyone. It will happen. All part of the--" she stopped, words choking in her throat. "Has there been a replacement?"

    Ragambald looked about, confused. "Replacement, milady?"

    "Does someone rule Kem? Are we sending Gisela or Gerbert?"

    "Merovech has risen to lead the village of Kem."

    "Who's Merovech?"

    "A local man, from before the Few. He has taken a standard, called Jerome-Karling."

    "Strange name. But seriously, the locals are now ruling?"

    "Aye."

    "I guess I'll just have to meet this Merovech for myself, then. Invite him to a banquet. I'll get Brunhild, we will have fun."

    772.8.10 Merovech and Banq.png

    "I swear, Madelgarde, you loop me into the worst situations, but you really make it fun."

    Madelgarde pulled herself out from under a deeply dozing Merovech to regard her friend. "The locals are a joy, even when they try to rule on their own."

    Brunhild whispered, "Are you sure Gualter won't mind?"

    "He's out preparing the warriors for a raid, why should he even know?"

    1589903552119.png
    1589903559942.png

    During the festivities, Gualter was guiding ships with Kemi's warriors south. There were stories of a temple, a temple held by someone who did not respect the primacy of the First Few, along the coast in Memel. It was here that he and the Kemi forces invaded. This was farther away than he had ever traveled. The people looked different. The Lands were different. They believed differently. What did this mean, ultimately? Did they not receive the benefit of the First Few? Their leader appeared to be among them, after all.

    1589904200372.png

    And, in the meantime, his wife was ensuring the protection of her lands in the way she knew how:

    1589904350927.png

    Gualter led his men through the village of Memel, above the protestations of their chief. He followed through by looting the temple, a place open to the sky. And yet, he met no resistance. The people stood cowed, accepting of their fate.

    Spear in hand, he walked up to their chief, a man called Aha, and spoke.

    "You! You are the Few of Memel, are you not?"

    "I lead them, yes."

    "And yet you offer no resistance, why?"

    "Better you than the Pyre. Take what you need, and go back home."

    "Pyre, is that what you Fischauites call the Horror?"

    "Chaos is still worse than the Pyre, but you are but men. You are nothing compared to the Pyre, who is a great agent of Chaos."

    Gualter watched Aha warily, unsure what to make of their people's attitude, but took their meager belongings regardless and returned to the ships and sailed north home.

    Madelgarde was not at the shore to meet the warriors as they returned. Gualter found this odd. He unloaded the boats. She did not come. He led a procession back to the central hearth. She did not wait in the village square for him. He entered the chieftess' chambers and found her.

    Hiding. With child.

    1589938456917.png
    1589938488079.png

    "I leave, leave my home for months, at your bidding. I risk my life, the lives of our men, to bring back treasure, at your behest. And this is how you repay me? This?"

    Madelgarde swallowed, having played through this scenario multiple times. Turning on her fire, she shouted, "It is the way of the Few! I've secured our borders!"

    "Well, there's one border that's wide open, isn't there?"

    "That's... That's just the way we need to be!"

    "Oh, is it? When I met with Brunhild, I didn't do anything. Does she sleep around like this?"

    "Well, when I get her here..."

    "I can't believe it. I'm the who's securing the alliances! Brunhild. Erich."

    Madelgarde realized too late she looked expectantly upward.

    "Erich. Oh, so this is Erich's child?"

    "No. Leovaldo's."

    "And Gualtari? Genovefa?"

    "They're yours. I'm pretty sure of that."

    "Pretty sure? Who else has there been? Leovaldo, Erich, who else?"

    Madelgarde slumped over. Does this fight have to keep going? "Yehudah. Waltgaud. Merovech."

    "Oh, all our borders. Lothar too? Gerbert?"

    "I haven't touched either of them."

    "Maybe I shouldn't either."

    "Maybe not."

    Gualter looked away, out the window at the forested landscape. "Maybe, maybe not... No. I can't do that. What do you want, Chieftess?"

    Madelgarde just pulled her furs tight around her. "Just go. Just go. You don't want me. I won't keep you."

    Gualter left the central building, and returned to the hut of his family. Madelgarde spent the rest of her pregnancy in private.

    1589939536478.png

    With Adalbert, she instructed her council to pack everything up. She could no longer stay here, in Kemi, with Gualter. She insisted on moving to the central hearth of Kantalahti.

    While the court was being moved, she insisted Brunhild join her at the sacred grove in Rovaniemi. Her more pious friend showed her the correct location, opened the correct spot on the stone.

    "You've really made a mess of things, you know that."

    "I know! You don't have to remind me." Madelgarde had not managed to clean herself up after her pregnancy. Her hair was tangled and oily, her furs merely piled around her. "I just need advice from the spirits."

    "You know what The Code says," Brunhild reminded her. "Marriages matter, and the locals are unsure of the ways of the Few."

    "...I told him that sleeping with the other Few was how I kept our borders safe."

    "You what?"

    "I said it was the way of the Few." Madelgarde hunched deeper into her furs.

    "Why did you do that?"

    "I hoped it would be okay."

    "You're a worse mess than I thought. Got all the chiefs at your beck and call, but it's all just a giant pile of chaos, isn't it?"

    Madelgarde grunted and squealed.

    Brunhild dropped any scorn in an instant. "What? What's wrong?"

    "I... Ever since the pregnancy ended, I still have these contractions. I don't know why. I think there's something wrong with me."

    "Right," Brunhild barked. She pulled out a handful of wood chips from her robes and placed pieces in each of the stars on the stone. She called out to the spirits.

    "It is I, Brunhild of the Oak. I seek you. I beseech you, answer my prayer. My friend is in need."

    The chips crackled and burst, alighting in blue flame, tendrils of smoke rising to the heavens.

    "I beg of you, share your wisdom with the Few."

    The tendrils of smoke coalesced into a triangle, which ignited in blue. "User: Brunhild. Domain: Lappland. Emergence: Oak. Password accepted. Welcome, Brunhild. Request for advice received. Please indicate nature of advice."

    "My friend is ill, is there medicine for her condition."

    "Material request: Incompatible with Code. Please rephrase."

    Brunhild wiped her brow. "Lousy spirits... yes, medicine won't work. Physician, then. Emerge a physician for treatment."

    "Request accepted. Physician will be dispatched with next emergence cycle. Time remaining until emergence: 765 years."

    "What? No, cancel request."

    "Request canceled. Time remaining for request: 40 seconds."

    "Just, is there anyone who can help her?"

    "Closest physician located. Designation: Glaurung. Accept, Yes/No?"

    "What kind of a designation is Glaurung?"

    "Accept, Yes/No?"

    "Yes! Accepted!" Madelgarde called out.

    "Authorized service completed. Logging off." The triangle dispersed as smoke.

    "Why do the spirits always speak so weird?" Madelgarde trembled.

    "The spirits only speak the purity of The Code."

    "It's annoying."

    "Better than the Cosmic Horror."

    * * * * *​

    Erich rushed to her side when news of her divorce, bastard, and health condition reached him. He insisted on helping nurse her back to health. In days, they were married.

    1589940224474.png
    1589940340297.png

    Erich still had business in Naumadal, and was away often. Madelgarde considered seeing if Yehudah wanted to visit, but she was still in no condition to see people.

    And so, she did not.

    The alarms rang out around Kantalahti. Looking outside, Madelgarde saw warriors rushing together, spears at the ready. The sun dimmed, and a huge figure darkened the sky as it flew into the central town, and landed.

    The smell of brimstone filled the air. The cold northern light reflected dully off scales the color of rust. The village's spears pointed at the new monstrous visitor, and Madelgarde walked forth best she could to face the newest menace.

    "I, Madelgarde of the Surf, Chieftess of Kemi, Rovaniemi, and Kantalahti, do hereby command you to state your business, and leave peacefully."

    1589942625749.png

    "Madelgarde..." the dragon hissed, "I am Glaurung. The physician you called."

    "You! Glaurung?"

    "Yes. You requested me, so here I am."

    "What could you possibly know about the health of humans?"

    Glaurung slid a forked tongue languorously over length of his serrated jaw. "Plenty."

    "Well, uh... what should I do about the cramps?"

    Glaurung snaked his head out, looking over the chieftess carefully. His tongue flicked out, tasting her. Satisfied, he pulled back. "Nothing."

    "Nothing?"

    "Nothing. The cramps will pass. You are with child again."

    "I... I am?"

    "You do this so very much, Madelgarde. You are young. Everything is fine."

    "So... then..."

    "Then I am free to stay."

    Sure enough, nine months later, she gave birth and the cramps resolved.

    1589943524486.png

    "Dragons? There are dragons here?"

    "Oh, not here. But I don't mind leaving my home. I do not like how they have... coalesced."

    "What? Why? Where are you from?"

    "A place simply known as and ruled by The Pyre."

    1589935072474.png
     
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    Chapter 4: Into the Den of Dragons
    Glaurung coiled languidly in the hearth-room, probing the air with his tongue as Madelgarde paced.

    The chieftess rolled out a map of the world. "The dragons, or Angevins as you call them, they come from a large island to the west?"

    "Among other places. The islands, the western lands, they rule the lands there. Always one more to replace the last one." He tapped a claw onto the map. "One more, more, more."

    Madelgarde swallowed. Glaurung smirked. He found her lazy. Flighty. Prone to hiding behind others. Seemingly born yesterday. Oddly alluring in a practiced way, perhaps, but far better a raising a mug than a weapon. Potentially steerable. "What? Did you think we all crawled out from holes in the ground?"

    She rolled her eyes. "Enough, physician. I am your leader." She raised a burnished eyebrow and turned a corner of her mouth up. So practiced. "And do you all have hoards?"

    Glaurung's nostrils flared. She knew the answer to that. She's fighting back. "I don't, unless you call your meager pay--"

    "You wouldn't be here if you wanted fortunes."

    "We take what we can get."

    "Excellent. Then you'll be happy to help me get to the hoards that do exist."

    She may be a vixen, he concluded, but a vixen is still a fox.

    775.10.18 To the Dragons.png

    Madelgarde sailed down the entire gulf, daring not step foot in the Lands of the Pyre. They were at the front of the land of the dragons, and since she could simply sail past, she did. As she passed she noticed the sky turning black over the lands, the smoke of countless fires coalescing as it rose heavenward.

    1590887771118.png

    There were lots of fires. The dragons did not rest, but instead took the initiative to consolidate. Lord Pyre was only one of many warlords. She started to hear legends of the tyrants that ruled these lands: Morzas the Monster. The Cannibal of Wiltshire.

    The Kemi raiders landed first in a land called Essex, but they left quickly as Morzas' forces proved too numerous.

    1590888540428.png

    Further down the island's coast was a place called Dorset, and here, too, she had to leave quickly as the Cannibal of Wiltshire was quick to make quick work of her men.

    1590888669948.png

    As Madelgarde's men dashed from village to village along the coast, dragons flew overhead. Facing down an army of warriors is always fearsome, but more so when dragons lead the charge. The Cannibal swooped in, routed the Kemi, and in a single charge flew off with Hildoin.

    Rumors of the cruel feast that came afterward convinced Madelgarde to leave the island for good.

    1590889239850.png

    Still, she was not satisfied with what she had found. A few trinkets here or there, but nothing as sure as a dragon's hoard. Yet it became clear that there was some limitation to the rumors. Dragons had a hierarchy just as suredly as any man. Not all of them had hoards; only the leaders like Morzas or the Cannibal would have anything resembling a treasure room. And Morzas was known for having an empty treasure room.

    The Kemi landed next in Caen, ruled by Medeus the Abomination. Their warriors had been spotted elsewhere along the coast, so Madelgarde's raiders set up camp near the village by the shore cliffs, and lay siege. After how her men were assaulted at Dorset, she decided she needed a new plan. She raided the fishing ports, and gathered all the nets, ropes, and lines she could. While in camp, her men were put to work stringing everything into a large net. Masts from a large vessel were salvaged and erected on the corners of the encampment.

    Scouts reported the troops approaching. She noted that the numbers were significantly reduced; whatever battles her foes had been in, they had taken their toll. She knew her warriors, fresh from plunder, would be able to meet the challenge.

    And so, the Kemi held steadfast as the air darkened and the dragon commander crested the hill before him. "Medeus the Abomination sends his regards!" the draconian warrior roared, and strafed. The Kemi were trained and ready, and hunkered under large shields as he passed. The commander circled high above, preparing for another pass. The long, slow moments gave the Kemi time to stand and rush the Caen clansmen.

    Madelgarde held back, and left the encampment behind the warriors. She looked up at the commander, and let loose her outer garments. Her furs were light, pale ermine, and they unfurled like a flag from around her, heralding her presence on the battlefield. She bared her head, and let her fiery locks catch the wind. The colorful play of red atop white pronounced itself as a beacon, clear as dawn.

    I may know nothing about leading an army, she mused, but I do know how to make an entrance.

    The commander spotted her, knew instantly that this was the invaders' leader. His tongue licked the air, he grinned, and descended, talons at the ready to snatch her up and return her to his chief.

    Madelgarde watched carefully as her would-be captor swooped in, and listened to the crashing surf below her. Not here. I am Madelgarde, and this is my surf.

    She unpinned her fur cloak, and let it catch the breeze. As the obvious distraction rose, she dropped, tucking tightly into a crouch. The commander looked with confusion for a second, realizing he wants to reach for the girl, not the cloak. For this reason he missed the net rising from the ground with the cloak, hoisted into the air, suspended from the masts. The chieftess' diminutive form slipped between the lines of the net, and the dragon's outstretched claws caught on the net and dragged him off center. Their position at the cliff edge was precarious, and he could not afford to be entangled over the water and plunge. So he landed hard on the ground, stunned, and even more wrapped in the net.

    1590975594528.png

    The Caen clansmen were routed and retreated. The Kemi surrounded the captured dragon, and Madelgarde approached.

    "You address Madelgarde of the Surf, the First Few and Chieftess of Kemi, Rovaniemi, and Kantalahti. Who are you?"

    The dragon wrestled with his pinioned wings, and grunted, "I am Glaedr, commander of Medeus the Abomination, Scourge of Caen and Maine."

    "Are you expecting rescue?"

    "No." Glaedr bowed his head. "I am defeated."

    "Where is your hoard?"

    "I... have no hoard."

    "Ah. Then you are doubly useless."

    "What do you know of dragons? Fool, thinking we all have hoards! I hold no hoard, but I know where they lie!"

    Madelgarde tilted her head and smiled, approaching the beast and caressing his cheek. "Do you like Medeus? The one who would deny you a hoard?"

    "No."

    "Then serve me. Show me these lands. Teach me your ways."

    "As you have defeated me, I must accept."

    Glaedr joined with Madelgarde as they sacked Mortain, dragging back meager treasure. Glaedr chuckled as the Kemi dragged a large chest aboard.

    "There! This is a dragon's hoard!" Madelgarde bellowed to her men.

    "No," Glaedr observed. "Not a hoard, per se." He reached down and opened the chest with a deft claw. A smooth, ivory surface lay within. "But something even more valuable."

    1590975749389.png

    Glaedr did direct Madelgarde to one place she had not considered: Frankfurt, at the end of a long, winding river. She rode atop Glaedr as she and Glaurung descended upon the village and temple there, and finally, the hoard was found and taken from the Chieftess, Semoth.

    779.1.26 Dragons Hoard.png

    And with the hoard, she was able to establish herself as High Chieftess, all the lands under her her own, someone to be considered on par with Lord Pyre.

    1590977372768.png
     
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    Chapter 5: The Secret

    Brunhild's hearth-hall had been modified to suit her taste since her arrival in Lappland. Six clippings of the oak tree she emerged from were taken and planted in a circle around the central hearth, each tended carefully by the villagers and warmed by the hearth. Over the past decade they had grown tall, strong, and the roof of the hall had been raised and windows opened throughout to allow in light to nourish the copse of living pillars the village gathered under when she held audience. The hearth-flames illuminated the verdant canopy surrounding them.

    Her chancellor, Gislari, entered the chamber with haste. He was a lion of a man, known for his boisterous, gregarious nature, extensive facial tattoos, and long, blond, unruly mane and beard. But this time, he approached furtively, skittering about more like a mouse than a lion. "My lady," he whispered. "An... ahem, an envoy from Madelgarde is here to invite you to her hearth."

    Brunhild laughed. "Oh, another party? Well, I'll be sure to attend. Please, send the envoy in, and I'll let him know."

    Gislari cleared his throat and wiped his brow. The hearth-hall creaked and rumbled in the rafters. "I am afraid... the envoy will be unable to enter the hearth-hall. Perhaps you would be willing to meet with him in the town square?

    "Why ever could he not enter? He has my protection."

    "It is not a matter of protection, my lady. I'm sure he feels perfectly safe. It's just... he's a dragon."

    The hearth hall heaved, and a wind passed through the copse. A giant shadow fell across the hearth hall from above. The gargantuan, horn-rimmed, rubescent head of Madelgarde's envoy snaked its way into the chamber from the window. His voice creaked and rumbled like a fast approaching storm. "This will suffice, man."

    Brunhild instinctively rubbed wood against her wristband, which started to glow blue.

    The dragon regarded the two humans amusedly and smiled. "Nothing to fear. You are Brunhild of the Oak, Chieftess of Lappland, are you not?"

    "I am."

    "I am here to invite you to Madelgarde, and I am charged with flying you to her hearth-hall and back. My name is Leviathan."

    1591792053562.png

    "Your services are graciously accepted. Give me the day to prepare, and I will arrive."

    * * * * *​

    Brunhild was unsure if it was simply the bewilderment of soaring over the treetops or the sparse preparations made in Kemi, but she was entirely underwhelmed by Madelgarde's welcome.

    She caught her Few Sister offering little more than pleasantries, and seeing after her children. All six had arrived for the event, along with Erich of Naumadal. Her two oldest, Gualtari and Genovefa by Gualter, her first husband, Adalbert by Leovaldo of Finnmark, and her three youngest: Radbot, Ekkehard, and Helferich, all by Erich and spending most of their time in Naumadal. Madelgarde kept going between them, barely keeping names straight.

    Brunhild approached. "Is everything all right?"

    "What? Of course, why wouldn't it? I... Have you seen Adalbert recently?"

    "Why? What about him?"

    "It's just... Oh, Brunhild, I don't know, Leovaldo won't recognize him as his son, so he's just a bastard, and he's the first of mine who's fully Few, not local, you know? But without the acknoledgement, will he ever be allowed to access--"

    "Shh, quiet, Mads, people can hear!"

    "I... I'm sorry, Bruni. I know I invited you here, but I'm just giving you an earful of problems. I'm so hungry these days. Erich's concerned, says I'm eating too much. I can't let myself get fat! What would they all... whatever. I quit doing that after Gualter. I just couldn't cause Erich that much pain. I'm so sick of Leovaldo. Sick of what he did to me."

    "Didn't you...?"

    "Sick of bearing his child, him destroying my marriage, him not recognizing his own flesh and blood that I'm raising to this very day. I gave them all up after things died with Gualter, you know that, right? Waltgaud, Merovech, ugh, Merovech, he's just become a diseased old man since, really dodged a bullet there."

    "Should I go? Is this not a good time to see guests?"

    1591792024084.png

    Madelgarde stopped, realized how she must sound, and nodded. "Yes, it's fine. I'm sorry to have drug you here just to complain. I'll have Leivathan take you straight back home."

    "I still can't believe you have dragons, Mads!"

    That brought a smile to her face. "Yeah, Glaurung's physician and tutor, Glaedr is my steed, and with the growth of my notoriety in raiding the Angevin lands, Leviathan offered his services and he is now my main commander. It's fun up there, isn't it?"

    "It is. I'll go. And Adalbert will be fine, I'm sure of it."

    As Brunhild left, she noted with concern one guard asking the other what a "bullet" was.

    * * * * *
    Brunhild had left. Erich had returned to Naumadal with his children. Madelgarde retired to her bedchamber, curled up, and cocooned herself in her furs. The reduced world was dark, warm, soft. Here, she didn't have to worry. She could shut out everything, She imagined she was back in the...

    A hand stroked down her covered form. She pulled herself in tighter, but did nothing to stop the continued touches. They were gentle. Familiar. She waited and slowly pulled back the furs to address the man in the room.

    "Hello, Yehudah."

    "Hello, my love."

    Yehudah held a beeswax candle as he continued to pet her. "Bad day?"

    Madelgarde pulled the furs tighter around her and bleated.

    "The day is over. Tomorrow will be different."

    "I embarrassed myself in front of Brunhild. She probably hates me now."

    "She doesn't change her mind on people that quickly. How did you embarrass yourself?"

    "Leovaldo."

    He inhaled sharply. A dollop of wax dripped from the candle, intermingling with Madelgarde's furs in an instant. "What about him?"

    "Adalbert's sixth birthday is coming up, and he won't dare acknowledge that he's his."

    Yehudah bolted up and started pacing. "That little snake. Can't be a man and admit to his mistakes, can he?"

    "Mistakes..." she wailed, shedding a tear.

    "He... Ugh, I can't blame him, my sweet seashell. Not you. Just... He should pay."

    "He should."

    "You're strong now. High Chieftess. You defeated Gerbert. You have dragons. Leovaldo is nothing to you. He should bow to you."

    "He should."

    He was pacing faster, hand holding the candle trembling, hot wax dripping all over his hand, raising small red welts.

    "It's okay, Yehudah, I can take care of this, you don't have to stress out about this."

    "You're going to be all right?"

    "You always know how to make me happy."

    Yehudah stopped, smirked at Madelgarde, and blew out his candle.

    The next morning, Madelgarde invaded, invigorated.

    1591791612638.png

    Glaurung, Glaedr, and Leviathan led the Kemi forces north to crash into Leovaldo's men in Finnmark as his abandoned son celebrated his sixth birthday. Finnmark was no match for Kemi, but Madelgarde was dealt another blow regardless.

    1591791653214.png

    "What??!" Madelgarde struggled to maintain composure, but could do little more than desperately cling to her breath. "Who rules now?"

    "He and his wife Shorena had a child, Menashe. The village of Oulu has decreed that the child still holds the spark of the First Few."

    "Shorena? I don't know her."

    "She is a woman from the village."

    "A local?"

    "A local."

    She thought back to her first marriage, to Gualtari and Genovefa. Perhaps they would be blessed as Few as well, after all.

    "All right, thank you. You may go."

    The Oulu emissary bowed deeply.

    She cleared her throat. "You may go." The voice still sounded clipped. She fidgeted.

    The second he left, Madelgarde rushed back to her bedchamber. She muttered, "No, you can't be dead, not yet, you're just staying in your chamber, aren't you? Maybe in the hallway? No, this can't be right."

    She rummaged through her belongings strewn behind her bed. She grabbed a pendant, marked with three dots in the shape of a triangle. She pulled out some sea salt and jammed it into the pendant and slammed it against the wall.

    The spirits faintly responded, "Password accepted."

    The wooden planks forming the wall silently recessed and sank into the ground. A long hallway the color of steel and silver appeared in the space behind the wall. She pulled her furs around her, slipped off her sandals, and crept inside. Light descended not from sun, moon, star, torch or candle, but from long rods suspended above that hummed like insects. The corridor branched off, banks of large glass tubes filled with greenish brine lining the walls. She rushed past them, not giving them another thought. With careful precision she rushed through the labyrinth of steel and glass, sprinting down a path she knew well. She reached the end of another hallway.

    "Why aren't you here?" she called out, mostly to herself. She pulled out her pendant, rubbing beeswax into it and touched it to the wall.

    "Password accepted."

    The wall of the hallway melted away to reveal another room, similar to Madelgarde's. The walls were oak planks, rendered sooty dark with age. A pile of straw covered in linen and a bear's hide lay in the center of the room, a place filled with fond memories. Yehudah's sword stood propped against the wall. He would never have treated his sword that way. He would be back soon. She was sure of it.

    She stole her way into the room and picked up his sword, feeling and sniffing the leather grip. She lay it on his bed, curled up next to it, and caressed it. He can't be gone long, she reasoned, and drifted off to sleep. She dreamed of Yehudah, his hands holding her fast, or petting her gently. She would never forget his hands.

    She awoke suddenly to the sound of a shriek. Standing in the doorway to the chamber was Shorena. "Witch! It's you!"

    Madelgarde leapt out of bed, grabbing her loose furs and covered up quickly.

    "Witch!" Shorena accused again. "You're the reason he's dead, aren't you! You couldn't have enough, and he went and became mine!"

    "No! Shorena! I'd never hurt him! I love him!"

    Shorena grabbed a helmet from a stand and threw it at her. "Witch! You're not even human! I've heard about how you consort with dragons! You've been skulking around all this time!"

    "I'm not a witch! I'm human like you!"

    "You are the Few! And what kind of sorcery is that?"

    Shorena pointed past Madelgarde. The chieftess looked over her shoulder, and her heart fell out of her chest in horror.

    The metal passage leading back home was ajar. No. A local saw. No. No no no no no no no.

    Madelgarde jumped, her lithe body fueled by terror. She ran back into the hall, scraped her pendant against the wall, and the doorway closed behind her.

    Nothing could be heard but the steady buzz of the rods above.

    The blackened pit in the center of her gut growled silently, and she felt as if she would be devoured from the inside. This was bad. Never let them see. Never let them know the truth.

    1591791713553.png

    Leovaldo was forced to swear fealty to Madelgarde. He seethed with fury as he signed the treaty. "This shouldn't even be a thing. We are the Few, after all!"

    "Be happy I let you keep your little fishing outpost, you bastard. And speaking of bastard--"

    "Never! I will never acknowledge anything that you made."

    "Get in line, you're not the first person to hate me. They don't last long. I don't even care about the marriage you ruined anymore. Neither does Gualter."

    1591791795277.png

    Madelgarde immediately returned to the warpath, first taking Oulu, trying to find Shorena before she ruined everything. Menashe was forced to surrender to her quickly, but Shorena was nowhere to be found. She asked around court.

    Shalom, the village's steward responded, "My lady, Chief Merovech asked for her hand in marriage. She is now with him in Kem."

    "Merovech?!" She would have to conquer all of her lovers' lands, she realized.

    The war for Kem was quick, and the results were finally satisfactory.

    1591791840814.png

    Shorena was still alive, but her husband was insane with some disease. No one would listen to her. Madelgarde had her lowered into a deep hole. It wouldn't take long for her to die. The secret needs to be safe. Please, keep the secret safe.

    1591841024972.png
     
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    Chapter 6: The Vixen and The Pyre

    Kemi raiders returned to the coast of Memel, the lands of Chief Aha, who let them pass through unimpeded before. Beacon signals were lit along the coast, but no one stopped the raiders' landing. Leviathan landed in the village to visit the chief. He was met by an elder.

    Leviathan stood tall and bellowed, "I bring tidings from Kemi! Take me to Aha."

    The elder laughed. "I am afraid Aha is no more. After Kemi visited us and destroyed our armies last time, we were invaded and taken over. Aha was fed to The Pyre."

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    "We all belong to the Pyre now. Expect His Lordship to arrive soon."

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    In fact, a missive was issued by Kemi's spymaster, Tetbert, that a force 5000 had just been dispatched for Memel. Leviathan's forces were 2000. The people of Memel remained passive as before, but simply waited as smoke rose on the horizon. Leviathan marshalled the raiders from every home and sent them back to the ships to find new ground. The forces of the Pyre marched on Memel just as Kemi left the shore behind.

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    Leviathan led the men northward, to Saaremaa, and sacked the islands there, then marched on yet another Pyre conquest in Laanemaa. The raiders left before the troops arrived, easily completed since the Pyre still needed to march in from the south.

    The trip back north to Kemi was quick, until a second fleet appeared. Canoes appeared along the banks of Kemi, and launched harpoons into the air, attempting to anchor themselves to the raiders' vessels. Leviathan rushed forward with a roar to defend the boats, only to be speared by multiple harpoons and pulled into the icy sea.

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    "Leviathan fell to pirates??!"

    Madelgarde took the news with a shock. Were having dragons not good enough? She paced back and forth while listening to her marshal Kojata's report.

    "It was the Pyre, wasn't it? Sending an ambush?"

    "They fled before we had a good chance to identify them, but we found this on one of the harpoons striking Leviathan."

    Kojata presented a scrap of torn fabric. The scrap had a pattern of blue and white stripes.

    "E-Erich?"

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    Madelgarde retired to her bedchambers with a headache. She closed the door to find her husband there, waiting.

    "Erich! Did you use... But you never use..."

    "The back door, yes. This is important. We need to talk."

    "Of course, my love. What about?"

    "Love. And why you seem so keen on throwing it away."

    "What do you mean?"

    "You think I, of all people, your husband, would send my men to harrass your coast? Really? You know me better than that, my sweet seashell. No. I did nothing of the sort."

    Madelgarde gulped. "I love you, my great stag. But you know I have to ask."

    Erich rubbed his face and stroked his chin. "You love me. I know how many other men you've said that to. It doesn't bother me, not in the slightest. But that's who? Leovaldo. Merovech. Yehudah. I hear you've got Yehudah and Merovech's wife locked up around here somewhere. You've gone and conquered their lands. Is that what love means to you?"

    "Please, I'm not looking for an excuse to attack!" She fell back on the bed, letting her coppery locks spill loose as she pouted. "I just want to know who speared my dragon."

    Erich shook his head and chuckled. Fine, he thought, work your magic. "You've been doing a fine job spearing your former lovers. If someone is sending canoes to your coast, they're likely living on your coast. Someone who wants to ruin your true love."

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    Madelgarde knew exactly how to deal with that.

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    "These sorts of things are easy to find when you know what a man likes."

    She summoned Tetbert to discuss things further.

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    He had managed the village's intelligence from the arrival of the First Few, and found him helpful and loyal.

    "Tetbert, I keep hearing about the Pyre. These pirates, they weren't from the Pyre, but they always appear ready for us."

    "They don't think of us at all, to be honest. The Lord Pyre sees fit to expand, and fears no one."

    "With good reason. I can't imagine that they will stay away forever, though."

    "Perhaps, perhaps not."

    "How blessedly helpful." Madelgarde grabbed a spear and poked at the hearth-fire. "We need to prepare."

    "Prepare? How do you mean?"

    "The Pyre could easily come to take us all, and we need our forces to be able to meet theirs. The other villages will join in."

    "If their chiefs see fit to," Tetbert reminded her, stroking his beard.

    He thinks he looks sagacious, she thought. "The Raksha coast, to the south of Kemi, Yehudah's old land, that is run by his son by... by that witch, Shorena, isn't it? And a girl beyond that?"

    "Aye..."

    "Children have no business running these lands."

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    Madelgarde looked over the maps. Her lands in the far north, and the Land of the Pyre to the south. She was now High Chieftess of Kemi and the coast of Raksha. Waltgaud agreed to bend his knee to her instead of being conquered. However, she noted with fear that this was not nearly enough to stand against the forces of the Pyre, which continued to grow. She would need to harden her resolve. She would need to be more.

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    She would need to be Queen.
     
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    Chapter 7: Multitudes For The Few
  • WJS

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    Jun 13, 2017
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    Chapter 7: Multitudes For The Few

    Genovefa watched carefully as Dovah Bangarh, her mother's latest "acquisition", investigated the state of the cave prepared for his quarters. The young princess remembered the days when Madelgarde collected men, many of whom having less-than-appealing predilections. Those days were long past, with Erich taking the role of sole husband and consort of the High Chieftess.

    As she watched Dovah's titanic musculature undulating underneath his vermillion scales, Genovefa decided she much preferred collecting dragons.

    "Whelp." In a guttural bark, Dovah got her attention. "You may tell your mother that these accommodations are adequate. They will require expansion as my hoard expands, and she will provide."

    "Certainly," she replied with a curtsy and withdrew. On recollection, she wasn't sure why she curtsied.

    * * * * *
    Madelgarde sat enrobed in her furs on her throne before the hearth. Gualtari stood at attention beside her. The man standing before her was old, with hair and beard held in long braids.

    "Radagaisus, we agree to your offer. We shall cease all raids upon the islands of Saaremaa. We shall defend the islands from any encroachment by the Pyre. In return, Chieftess Liuvigoto will be betrothed to my son Gualtari, with all issue belonging to our house."

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    Radagaisus left to return to Saaremaa, and Gualtari joined Madelgarde for the meeting with the Council.

    "Gualtari is joining us for our meetings from now until Liuvigoto comes of age. I want his training as our future king to continue. Ragambald, how fares the High Chiefdom?"

    The venerable Ragambald, loyally serving the Few from their emergence, stroked his graying beard. "All fares well. With Leovaldo in prison, none of your vassals wish to cause you trouble. Merovech and Waltgaud want to be on the Council, but have not challenged your right to rule."

    "Good, good. Kojata, how fares the war with Nordland?"

    The marshal nodded and smiled. "Chieftess Cenabrida agrees to surrender and accept your offer of vassalization. Dovah proved himself more than capable to lead the warriors."

    1594521326160.png

    "That's everything needed for the lands of Håloga, then. Can we start the coronation?"

    "Not quite yet, your majesty," Ragambald replied. "We shall need further funds to establish your rule of Håloga, and then we will be able to declare you Queen."

    "Funds? Lothar, how is the treasury?"

    The burly Lothar, steward, responded, "Not nearly enough. We should raid the Angevin lands for more hoards. The hoard in Frankfurt afforded you the High Chiefdom of Raksha."

    "Are you sure we don't have enough now?"

    Lothar smiled. "I'll do what I can, but it won't be immediate."

    Madelgarde nodded. "Send my best to Brunhild, all right? Are you positive she won't join us?"

    Lothar beamed with the mention of his wife. "She plans to attend your coronation. I would advise speaking with her then."

    "Very well. Tetbert, is the Pyre remaining calm? Do we have targets in Angevin lands for raids?"

    "The Pyre ravages southward and away from our shores. Deep in Angevin land, on the back of an island, there are rumors of a hoard in Tyrone. Our boats can arrive on their doorstep."

    "Excellent news. Thank you. Alban, anything regarding the faith you need to relate?"

    Alban, resplendent in white robes and long flaxen hair that extended to his waist, made the Sign of the Triangle. "Code be praised. Tales of your goal of rule, reminding the world of the primacy of the First Few, has touched all in lands Kolan, Tavastian, and Hålogalander. Zealots are approaching! They all bow to the First Few, Emergent Upon Initialization, and shall serve you to smite all who would not believe. Come, Glaedr stands ready to show you!"

    He gestured to the front doors of the hearth-hall, and guards opened them wide. Madelgarde's steed stood at the ready, head bowed to accept her. She climbed into the saddle placed atop her dragon's back, and they flew up above the tree line. Approaching Kantalahti from all directions were throngs of fishermen, woodsmen, herdsmen, all led by the priests to the Few.

    She gasped at the multitudes. Thousands of men stood ready to do their Queen's bidding in the name of the First Few.

    Upon return to the earth, she spoke with the Council. "Will they join us on the raids?"

    "No, they insist on showing the Primacy of the Few, not just looting villages."

    "Are they enough to stand against the Pyre?"

    "If we're lucky. The Pyre has his own crack troops."

    "We can continue southward, then."

    "We can, but the Tavastians to our south also believe in the First Few, as you know. They want to find infidels."

    Madelgarde bit her lip and slumped into her throne. All these men, but was there anywhere to deploy them? "What do you suggest, Alban?"

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    "East. Across the Kantalahti Sea. The far shores do not accept the First Few, but hold a creed they call Nemi."

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    Madelgarde twisted her face in bemusement. "Rock-worshipers? We'll do it. We can hold more land if that will make things better."

    The zealots crossed the sea to attack the Kanin Peninsula first. They quickly overwhelmed the village and declared it land for Kemi. Immediately thereafter they invaded Snopa.

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    Chief Thonmi Sönam sat in his throne room, a granite chair carved into a giant stone obelisk, covered in religious verses. He listened to the reports as they came in. "Oh, so Kanin has fallen to dragons, and they march this way? Surely they will listen to the call of money." He thrust his hand out towards one of the rough-hewn pillars that graced the Nemian throne-chamber. Each pillar hosted a crystal-filled brazier and a small cabal representing some aspect of governance.

    Sönam's steward, standing beneath the pillar indicated by his chief's gesture, replied, "Money is definitely welcomed, but I fear it will not be enough to slake their thirst. They have come to spread their faith."

    Sönam gasped pettily, waving a silk kerchief to dispel the shock. "What do they worship? Fire? The stars? Oh, they cannot be the Starlands. Nor can they withstand the faith of stone and the Lantern of Life, surely."

    He looked over the room and fluttered his silk towards the marshal's pillar. The marshal responded, "Whatever the power of their faith, they do believe in the strength of their numbers. And their dragons. Our men cannot possibly endure battle against them."

    "Then we will need to surrender, bide our time. The Obelisks cannot be quenched. Only buried for a time."

    Snopa fell, and the army marched on to Ugra, where they were met with an envoy from the Starlands, a quickly growing conquerer to the south.

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    Dovah flew ahead of the main army to greet them. "State your purpose, cattle, before I make the word of Madelgarde come manifest upon you!"

    "I am Tsangma, Banchenpo of the Starlands and Gyalpo Lang Sönam. We are both trying to expand our territory; surely there is no need to come to blows between conquerors."

    Dovah narrowed his eyes as his breath steamed out around him. "The Faithful of Queen Madelgarde will march where they please. We do not take orders from weak foreigners."

    A woman's voice called out, "That's enough, Dovah." A young woman strode forth, dressed in white with a stylized butterfly's makeup. Her hair was perhaps a shade blonder, but she looked for all the world like Madelgarde herself.

    "I am Genovefa, Princess of Kemi, and my words carry the force of my mother's. What did you have in mind?"

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    A deal was struck: the Starlands would focus on lands south and west, while Kemi would remain north and east.

    Ugra and Mezen fell quickly, and so the lands comprising the Duchy of Basker were all, suddenly, part of Kemi. Even still, though, the problem of funding remained, as Madelgarde could still not call herself High Chief of Basker or Håloga. And without that, there was no chance to be called Queen outside her realm. But then, Lothar had an offer.

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    Lothar beamed as he presented the chest of gold to Madelgarde. "Here you are! With this, you will be able to create and announce the titles you need. There's just one thing we'll need to allow for the transfer."

    "One thing? Lothar, what are you planning?"

    "Have I always shown you to be your loyal servant?"

    "You have."

    "And you know Brunhild and my two sons, Lothar and Ricchar, have come of age?"

    "I do."

    "Right now, Lothar is going to receive both chiefdoms of Kola and Lappland, but Ricchar will have nothing. All I ask, as a token of your grace, is to be allowed the right to govern the village of Kemi in your name, so that it may pass to Ricchar."

    Madelgarde stepped back. Kemi was where she began, yes. Her lands carried that name proudly. But she no longer lived there, having moved to Kantalahti soon after taking control from Gerbert.

    "Brunhild is stilll not joining us, is she?" she asked.

    "With this gold, she will."

    She pulled her garments tight around her. A younger version of her would have just flirted to get a hold of the chest. But now, she recognized the true value it would mean for her.

    "Very well. I hereby declare you the Chief of Kemi."

    "And you are the High Chieftess of Håloga and Basker."

    She did not declare herself Queen immediately. The zealots still had life in them, and so they followed the terms of the agreement with the Starlands, and went east, to the lands of Xiaoxióng: Indiga, Zavarot, and the isle of Kolguyev. During this time, the marriage to Liuvigoto was consummated.

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    The scattered forces to the northeast were nothing, and easily conquered. And so, the hearth was lit high, and Madelgarde invited everyone to come witness her coronation. Tavastian and Dalish people came, but most importantly to Madelgarde, her old friend Brunhild.

    Brunhild arrived, embracing her. "You did it! I never could even manage to become High Chieftess, but you, it is clear you are Queen!"

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    Madelgarde had had her furs altered for her new status, wrapped around her as a luxurious cape of ermine. She still could not resist having them drape over her in the salacious way she so enjoyed in her youth. "Never become High Chieftess? I don't know about that. You are prepared to bow down to your Queen, are you not?"

    Brunhild laughed. "You more than deserve it. What, did you double your lands with those holy warriors? Indeed, you are worthy." She knelt before her, and intoned, "I hereby swear fealty to you, Queen Madelgarde of Kemi, First among the Few."

    "And I hereby declare you High Chieftess of Warins. Remember Bernegildis? She will answer to you now. I've sent my son Adalbert east to manage those lands. Seems only fair. Genovefa has Dovah, and Gualtari will be king next.

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    "Taking over Snopa? What happened to the old chief?"

    A painted figure watched the two women from the shadows.

    "Oh, not sure, Gerbert died soon afterward, I'm positive there's nothing we need to concern ourselves with."

    The figure, hidden from sight, fanned himself with silk.

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