Empire at War

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Chapter Two: Era of Heroes - Southern Fall, Northern Rise

Myrrine Nouus of Stagirus was a woman of integrity and possessed a strong sense of righteousness. However, she was also known as a hard-headed commander who would be unrelenting in pursuit and unwavering in defense. Even as Rhamnus became a vassal to Herolus, she refused to cease the raids on the shores of Cumae, arguing that Heron Berneris of Cumae should return the lands taken from her late lord, Marquis Galeno. Despite her efforts, she did not have the backing of the rest of Rhamnus, and fought a losing battle against the much larger forces of Cumae. It was only due to her strategic genius that Stagirus, the hilly regions in the southwest of Rhamnus, did not fall.

In late 355, Heron took a less aggressive stance and proceeded to fortify the cities he had taken from Rhamnus. It was a statement that he had no intention of giving up any of the conquered lands, and served to aggravate Myrrine even more. Her constant raids and attempted attacks were met with staunch defense, her insults with indifferent silence. Months passed in which her forces were whittled down, until eventually, her health was, too. She was already of advanced age, and anger only served to weaken her mind and body. After an uncharacteristically cold day in Spring 356, when it should have been warm enough in the south to lose a layer of clothing, she fell ill with a high fever.

It proved to be the last summer the steadfast pillar of Rhamnus would live to see. With great regret Drakon learned that Myrrine had passed away, and that Cumae had taken the opportunity to invade Stagirus. There was little he could do, since he already understood that Iason Aquila of Herolus had signed a treaty with Heron for splitting the vassal state between the two in order to maintain good relations. Stagirus had been a region promised to the latter, and Myrrine was labeled a dissident and rebel, acting out of self-interest rather than in the Solaris family’s name. In his heart, Drakon swore that he would give her the proper honors once he reclaimed his birthright and brought down the murderer of his father.

“I am so sorry for how incapable I am as a leader. I have failed my father, I have failed my people and most of all, I have failed my loyal followers. Please forgive me...” Drakon knelt before an unmarked tombstone and spoke to nobody in particular. He had erected several such tombstones in the back garden of the residence Iason had granted him in Chios. One was for his father, whose body had not been retrieved, another was for Myrrine, who had been cremated in her home town before the invasion from Cumae. Behind him was his entourage, the unwaveringly loyal generals who had already served under Galeno, kneeling as well, and sharing in the moment of anguish. They, too, felt that they had failed the lord they had served, and were now unable to help the young lord, Drakon, alleviate his sadness and feelings of inadequacy.

“Before you all, I swear that I will reclaim Rhamnus and bring justice to the cowards who plotted the murder of my father,” Drakon stood up, turned around and announced to the gathered men and women. Even as his position was nothing more than that of a lowly minister at the court of Iason, his demeanor was befitting that of a marquis’ when in the presence of his own people. His father had taught him that no matter how desperate the situation, he was to never forget his birthright and his position in the world. “The time will come when Rhamnus will rise again!”

For now, all he and his followers could do was to hone their skills and bide their time. If news of the north could be trusted, they were clearly entering an age of strife, during which relations between neighbors could sour on a moment’s notice. When that time came, Drakon would not hesitate to take the opportunity and return to the forefront of the stage of history. After all, he was still in possession of the imperial seal, which his father had given to Agathon for safekeeping during the ambush. Fate willed it that it remained in the hands of the Solaris family, and he would make good use it.

In the north, the war between Abila and Olynthus the previous year had left the former severely weakened. Pantas Museo of Naxos saw that weakness and proceeded to reinforce the defenses along Naxos’ south-western border, and initiate mass recruitment and training of soldiers, in order to be able to better respond to a future invasion. Paramonos learned with regret that his mistake against Straton had resulted in the Five-Year Plan proposed by Telesoron to be pushed back by at least two years. Since they were in a non-aggression pact with Abila, taking the fiefdom was no longer something that could be achieved within the year. Instead, he would have to turn his attention back to Dorylaion, which had been his initial aim before Melanthis’ betrayal had resulted in the break in relations with his neighbor.

Straton was also ceaselessly training troops, not for one moment believing that Paramonos would keep the non-aggression pact if he perceived weakness in Abila. Furthermore, Naxos’ strengthening was worrying, especially since rumors had that the Formido of the tundra were embroiled in a civil war. With the pressure from their northern borders taken away, Pantas could withdraw some of the garrisons and bolster the southern army with veterans who fought in and survived many Formido raids.

Lahya Eventyr and her two companions remained in Abila Lysaniou even after her image of Straton had been thoroughly shattered during the previous two campaigns. Due to the fact that Abila was in a precarious position, she felt that it was not right to abandon it in its time of need. Still, she had her people search for clues on her brother’s whereabouts, as well as information on alfar who were put up for sale. With the monthly stipend she was given, she saved up money to buy their freedom whenever she could - and asked Leontis and Alexander to persuade the slavers to sell them at a discount, whenever she could not.

Additionally, she had taken an exceptional liking to Thais Sacra of Abila, and did not want to leave her company anytime soon. During the strained peacetime that followed the end of the war against Olynthus, there was little the female general had to do. Alexander and Leontis were delegated to training the soldiers in her stead - as per Lahya’s request - leaving her with ample time to spend idly with the half-alf.

“It appears that you possess great tactical understanding, Lady Lahya,” Thais commented, looking across the wooden board before her intently. They were playing a game using figures carved from ivory, called Tesseris, which featured various pieces representing all the different classes of soldiers and officers found on the battlefield. The aim of the game was to either take the enemy general or remove enough pieces from the opponent’s side to render them unable to continue fighting. “But I will not give up.” With this, she moved her cavalry back from the failed attempt at a flanking maneuver.

“I appreciate that fighting spirit of yours the most in you, Thais,” The half-alf responded with a warm smile, in complete contrast to the cold-blooded move she performed right after, of cutting through the human general’s infantry line with the cavalry she had held in reserve throughout the game. It ended up a step short of taking her opponent’s general, but was in a position that was impossible to be opposed by the pieces Thais had available. “But this is my victory.” No matter what the next step was, come her turn, the charge would be completed and the general would fall.

“If I was the general, I would not be defeated by this weak contingent...” She responded with a pout. Indeed, due to charging through an infantry line, Lahya’s cavalry had its strength deducted by a set amount. In the game, it was still enough to claim the general’s head, but in reality, it may have played out in a completely different manner.

“You are so cute when you are angry.” Over the past year, they had spent many days and nights together, playing Tesseris or reading books by the fireplace. “I do not believe for a moment that you would fall to something so simple in a real battle.”

“Of course not!” For all her gallant and almost distant seeming demeanor at court or on the battlefield, Thais was nothing more than a simple girl before Lahya. She came from a humble background, the daughter of a now retired drill instructor in Straton’s army, and had learned to maintain a low profile with her opinions throughout her quick rise through the ranks. There were many who envied her for holding such a high position at her age, but her performance on the battlefield and neutrality at court cemented her standing within Straton’s inner circle. “I will win next time... so, one more!” Lahya was leading in victories by a large margin, but it was evident that Thais’ natural talent would allow her to catch up eventually.

“It is late now, let us go to sleep,” The half-alf suggested and suppressed a yawn. The drowsiness was invading her features and no amount of itching for another victory seemed to be able to stem the tide. Suddenly, Thais let herself go and yawned openly, earning a surprised look from Lahya, followed by a chuckle. “It would appear that you are sleepy, too.” Blushing, the younger girl could only agree, and they put away the game board to turn in for the night.

While the southern fiefdoms were embroiled in unrest and the north rested from theirs of the previous year, Kyron Sparda of Thronion gained diplomatic influence in Histria, becoming the de facto lord of the neighboring fiefdom due to the fact that the actual one was bedridden for most of the year. Drawing from the expanded pool of talents, he recruited many capable commanders and began to draft soldiers for his aim to attack Hierapolis on his own the year after. He would complete what the Anti-Hesper Alliance had failed to do, punish the traitors and usurpers, and return the emperor to his throne.

Although his father was the count of Thronion, he exerted barely any influence on the political scene of the empire, and possessed little attraction for talents. During his reign, the army of Thronion had atrophied to the minimum amount of garrisons for its otherwise prosperous cities. Its relatively isolated geographical location, similar to Histria’s, meant there were not many opportunities for an army to see action, which was also the reason why it had only been able to muster a force of seven thousand during the alliance. Kyron possessed outstanding charisma and held an almost magical attraction for talented people. While his inner circle consisted of his near family, such as the Vesci twins, there were those who joined him based on the letter he wrote against Hesper during his short captivity, and his actions while fighting in the alliance.

Methodios Heres of Mylasa proved to be an outstanding minister, who spearheaded various reforms in the economic and judicial system of Thronion. The former judge, once employed by Hesper himself, found his calling as Kyron’s right-hand man, and enjoyed the latter’s deep trust. He was one of the few who could pride himself in being capable of discerning the differences in the lord’s words and his actual intentions. Kyron would oftentimes hide his true thoughts and feelings in actions and gestures that were hard to notice.

On the other end of the spectrum was Androkles Jauna of Orestias, who was simple-minded in many regards, but very direct in his demeanor. It was the main reason Kyron kept him close as a bodyguard, as the bald man’s unwavering loyalty and frankness was a source of peace of mind and entertainment. During a meeting, he had once spoken up against an advisor, solely based on the fact that he did not like the man’s brown-nosing tone. The court had gone quiet in confusion, and the lord laughed heartily, causing Methodios to join in unabashedly. Kyron took the opportunity to chastise the advisor’s behavior, and warned everyone present that instead of saying what they thought he wanted to hear, they should speak their minds about what they thought he should hear.

The Vesci twins, Euripides and Euphemia, were Kyron’s cousins, and never had the need to talk to him in an honorable manner. They would openly state their opinions - or at least Euripides would, as Euphemia was of the silent type - and never had to fear retribution for disrespect. Whenever they were not training the troops or scouting talents, they would take their time to visit the lord’s estate to partake in his meals, snacks and alcohol, or read from his personal library. He enjoyed their free-spirited lifestyle and appreciated their company whenever he had the free time to do so; it was a reminder of his younger days, before he discovered his ambition to rise in ranks at the imperial court.

During the summer of 356, shortly after news of Heron’s success in conquering the region of Stagirus reached Thronion, Kyron inspected the progress of his army’s training and the state of his cavalry in a specially created wooden arena, watching them from a stand along with his entourage. The infantry held mock battles under the instructions of junior strategists, archers showed off their short- and long-range shooting skills, and the cavalry rode in formation and performed various high-speed maneuvers. Praising their quality, the lord was overjoyed to see that his army was improving at an incredible pace.

At the end, the various soldier classes lined up to receive a speech from Kyron, who openly voiced his ambition to set out and free the emperor from the clutches of Loukios and Miltiades the following year. Receiving a thunderous applause, the lord of Thronion was satisfied with the progress he had achieved since the end of the alliance. Then, among the infantry, he spotted a man easily towering at six measures, standing out from the soldiers around him. However, that was not his most distinguishing feature; he had a round, almost plump face, and his body had a similar shape, with a waist circumference of almost four measures. He occupied the space of two men, which was the reason he felt even more out of place than he already did due to his height. Furthermore, his skin was as smooth as a newborn’s, with short, fuzzy blond hair to match. His narrow eyes and lips seemed to be curled into a perpetual vacuous smile.

“Who is that giant man?” Kyron asked the drill instructor, who stood in front of the infantry.

“That is Pankratios Largo, my lord. He is a volunteer from Pella.”

“How was his performance during training?” It was clear that the lord of Thronion was interested in the man due to his physique.

“Unlike his appearance would suggest, his endurance during long marches is exceptional. He can lift a grown man with a single hand and carry more than three times the weight an average man can. However, he is not very bright and oftentimes fails to understand very simple instructions.” The drill instructor understood the interest, but he did not want to oversell Pankratios, knowing that despite his strengths, he did not possess the qualities that would allow him to rise to a position as an officer.

“Androkles, what do you think?” Kyron turned to his bodyguard, his intention unmistakable.

“I would love to test my strength against him,” Androkles responded with a confident expression.

Thus, an unarmed sparring match was arranged between the two men on the spot, with the soldiers forming a ring around them. Kyron and his entourage overlooked it from atop the stand, all interested to see the prowess of the lord’s personal bodyguard. When Pankratios rolled up his sleeves, as he was told to by the instructor, it became clear that he was not fat. Just like Androkles, his arms were packed with muscles, but they had the width of the former’s thighs. There was no doubt in his strength, but technique was oftentimes a more important factor in combat.

The gong rang and Androkles immediately lunged forward, intent on knocking the other man off his feet with a quick surprise attack. However, it was as if he had run into a brick wall, as Pankratios did not waver in the least and stood fast. The larger man looked like he would be twice as heavy as his opposite, but it was clear that most of it consisted of muscles; when Androkles pushed against his rotund stomach, it did not give way as fat would, but only barely deformed under the pressure. Dvergr, albeit much smaller than humans, had a stout and powerful physique that allowed them to match grown men in strength. Pankratios’ body shape and structure was a lot like a dvergr’s, only enlarged to nearly the size of a Formido’s.

However, Androkles was not a simple-minded bull who only knew to push; he took hold of the larger man’s right arm, pushed with his hip and suddenly pulled. Using his lower back and hip as a pivot, he tripped Pankratios over his right leg and threw him to the ground. A roaring cheer ran through the soldiers’ ranks at the display of technique and strength; any one of them would have put their money on the larger man, but they were shown the reason why Androkles was their lord’s personal bodyguard and no other.

“Oh, that was fun!” Pankratios stated with a surprised expression, the first time many had heard him speak. His voice was high-pitched and almost childlike, in line with his facial features, but in stark contrast with the size of his body. “Let’s do that again. Now I won’t lose.” A glint of determination appeared in his eyes and the smile on his lips curled up even higher. He was excited.

Everyone looked to their lord, who responded with a nod. Then, the two combatants returned to their starting positions and the gong rang again. Again, Androkles charged forward, but was surprised to see that Pankratios did the same. Unlike the first time, the rotund man attacked as well, his entire weight slamming into the bodyguard like a charging bear. And just like a bear, he hugged the latter with his crushing strength. Any lesser man would have had all the air pressed out of their lungs and most likely had some of their bones broken. In fact, Kyron imagined that under such pressure even armor would be deformed. However, Androkles withstood it and pushed outwards with his arms, slowly expanding the hold. His entire face was red from the physical exertion, veins popped out on his bald head and he gnashed his teeth, but he gained ground. Pankratios’ expression was one of wonder, as he slowly lost his grasp on the smaller man, although his face showed not a hint of exhaustion. Suddenly, Androkles slipped out from the hold and put some space between them. His breathing was rugged, but a smile parted his beard; he was enjoying himself. Responding in kind, the large man’s mouth split into a grin, showing that he was missing some of his front teeth.

Their spar continued on for nearly an hour, and in the end, none could be counted the winner. While Androkles was able to throw Pankratios to the ground several more times, it was clear that the larger man was not using all of his strength whenever he had his opponent in his grasp. If he had done so with the intention to kill, even a man of Androkles’ physique would not have survived the pressure of those arms. On the other side, both men looked tired in the end, even though Pankratios’ endurance seemed to give him the edge there, too. Ultimately, Kyron had to admit in his heart that this new recruit was physically stronger than his trusted bodyguard.

“Pankratios Largo of Pella, from today onward, you will join Androkles on guard detail,” The lord announced when the two combatants stood before him. It came as little surprise to Methodios, who smiled to himself, but the man in question was speechless and looked between Kyron, Androkles and the other soldiers, before falling to his knees and breaking out into tears of joy. Recruits from Pella swarmed around Pankratios and patted him on the back in congratulations. They were proud that a man from their own neighborhood had been recognized by the lord of their domain, and would surely break out the alcohol and meat they had hidden in their barracks tonight.

“Thank you so much, my lord! I will not disappoint you, my lord!” Pankratios blubbered, overwhelmed with emotions. He was only nineteen years of age at the time.

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