Crow on the cradle
Candles guttered here and there, providing little illumination. He waited in silence.
After a few long minutes, he heard the scraping of bone on stone. A quiet, empty voice spoke from somewhere in the gloom.
"Sssssserav ..." it hissed, and then fell still. Vaclav took a deep breath.
"No my lord. It is Vaclav. Serav was my grandfather. He's been dead for twenty years, lord. Remember."
There was a noise that might have been a chuckle.
"Twenty ... years? I should apologise ... Vaclav. Sometimes it is hard to ... tell you apart. You are such excellent ... stewards."
Vaclav bowed his head for a moment, and the drew a slim scroll from beneath his feathered cloak.
"You told me to come as soon as there was word from the Malinov, my lord. A scroll arrived less than an hour ago."
He unfurled the pale parchment, squinting in the gloom. He could barely make out the scroll, never mind the writing. In truth, he had memorized the words but he made a show of reading the scroll out for his lord. The dead king could be quite touchy about little details, as Vaclav had learned the hard way.
"They say they remember, and they keep to the old compact. They are Varushkan and do not forget. They will raise the black standard again, if their cousins in the west will do their part. There is talk of roads, of course. Of mithril. They will march, but never again lead. Oaths were sworn, after all."
The voice from the shadows was stronger now. Vaclav's eyes had adjusted to the gloom a little, and he could make out the hunched shape seated on the stone throne in the centre of the barrow, and a few of the dark alcoves set at regular intervals into the walls. He could not quite make out the shapes that occupied them, and as always he was grateful for that.
"I remember the oaths. I am not ... so far gone. I remember Pieter Malinov near ... pissed himself ... when he laid his blood on the black stone. So angry. So passionate. So ... foolish. That was ... long ago."
Vaclav knew better to interrupt his lord when he was reminiscing, lost in the past.
"I remember ... when you told me ... what they had done to the Senator. Thrown ... out of a window."
A dry, empty chuckle.
"Again, lord, that was my grandfather. And I think you told me once that that was Varla Malinov. I am sorry."
"Don't ... apologise. It is nearly ... time ... for me to rest. The iron boots no longer ... march. The sound of the drums becomes ... distant. The crows ... have fed ... but now ... peace."
The dark lord hissed the final word, drawing it out, his voice dwindling away into silence. Then, suddenly, it was strong again. Vaclav felt a flicker of his lord's will, his full attention focused on him.
"Send the birds, Vaclav. Make the ... offer. Baruk and his people will ... remain here and guard my ... slumber. Tell him ... that those of his people who wish may go to the Imperial orcs ... if they will take them. But our bargain ... must be paid in blood ... and he and his blood-kin will ... stand watch ... over the barrow. He knows ... the price should he fail."
Vaclav nodded, and bowed, and started to withdraw. Then he paused and turned back.
"My lord ... may I ask a question?"
The silence became expectant.
"Will it last, this peace with the northern orcs?"
Laughter, then. Dry, but strong, filling the barrow. Echoed by the unseen figures occupying the alcove.
"No, Vaclav. Peace never lasts. Never. In a month, a year, a decade, a century ... peace dies. The boots march again, the drums beat again. the blood ... flows again. As it was in my youth, as it was in the centuries since. Peace ... there is no peace, outside of the grave."
The laughter died away; there were no echoes. One moment laughter, the next silence.
"Send the birds, Vaclav. When the peace ends ... I will be here. For you, for your children, for your children's children. It does not ... matter ... how long. It does not matter if you call yourself Ushka, or Varushkan. I will ... always be here ... for you."
Vaclav bowed low, a catch at his throat and his eyes blurred with tears at the terrible hunger in his lord's voice - and the terrible, terrible love that lay there too.
He pulled his cloak around him again as he stepped through the archway and began the long climb up the spiral stairs. At each turn, he touched his fingers to his lips, and touched the skulls of those who had gone before him, nestled in their earthen alcoves. His father. His grandather. His great-grandmother. Back and back through the generations.One day soon that he would join them, and in time watch his daughter, his grandon, the blood of his blood, descend the dark stairs to commune with the Lord of the Broken Hill, in the darkness, in the silence of centuries, until long after his bones were dust and his name forgotten.
Since the Thule invasion of Karsk in 368YE, an independent military force has operated out of the Broken Hill, in Branoc. Composed primarily of Varushkan warriors apparently supported by a powerful sovereign known as the Charnel Lord, the force was supplemented by some Wolves, and even a number of orc bandits. The army changed sides at least once during the war on the command of its aberrant overlord, but despite this treachery eventually came to fully support the Varushkan defenders.
Now, it appears that there is peace with the Thule - at least in the short term. The barbarian orcs have withdrawn from Branoc, and from Crowslook, to cold Krevsaty. The Charnel Lord obviously considers the invasion over ... and has instructed his agents to approach the Varushkan people with an offer.
The Charnel Lord knows that it is time to sleep once again - to fall into the restless slumber in which he sleeps away the years between wars in Karsk. While still a presence within the Broken Hill, he will not be in a position to completely protect his chosen people ... and he wishes the Varushkans to take over this role. "His" people are still Varushkan - albeit estranged cousins to the rest of the population of Karsk. He has also sent his messengers to the Malinov, the Sloev and the Pravin of Moresvah and called in certain old favours, to gain the assistance of the notoriously insular old families in protecting the soil of Varushka.
One thing he has reminded them of is that, until the reign of Empress Mariika, the scions of these families lead the army of the Iron Helm into battle, serving as general as often as not. When the cunning Empress disbanded their army, they swore a mighty oath that one day they would see the black banner of the cruel army raised again. Perhaps the time has come to make good on that oath ... working with the surviving followers of the Charnel Lord they could certainly realise that dream ... provided the rest of Varushka were prepared to help them.
The Varushkan followers of the Charnel Lord represent several vales in Branoc, Crowslook and eastern Nitrost. These could either form the core of a new Varushkan army or they could be used to expand an existing Varushkan army to make it large.
This opportunity to incorporate the warriors of the Charnel Lord into an Imperial army will be available until Summer Solstice 380YE, otherwise the warriors are likely to disperse back to their homes. This opportunity might well be removed if open war with the Thule erupts again before a decision is made.
Enlarging an existing Varushkan army with the assistance of the two insular natives of Karsk would require a motion of the Imperial Senate, and would cost 125 wains of mithril. It would take six months, during which time the target army would still be able to move and submit orders normally. At the end of that time, the army would become a large army with all the standard benefits, and with the increased upkeep.
Alternatively, by working the the miners of Moresvah, the Varushkans could use this core of vicious killers to reinstate the Iron Helm army. The legacy of this cruel army is particularly strong in Karsk . It would require 160 wains of mithril and 40 Thrones, and take a year, but at the end of that time the cruel banner of the Iron Helms would be raised again in Karsk. However at present, the Varushkans cannot support an additional army.
Sadly, the long years of war have wrought untold damage to the infrastructure of Karsk. Near constant casting of Rivers of Life means that the road network that connects the vales of Karsk is ruined. As a result of the devastation, the Varushkans are not currently able to support a third army. After two years, the industrious Varushkans will likely repair enough of the roads to be able to support a third army if nothing else changes, but there is an opportunity to improve the situation immediately.
A Senate motion to rebuild all the damaged roads would be a great work that requires 80 wains of White Granite and 20 Thrones, but would be complete within two seasons. Once complete it would allow the Varushkans to support a third army, but it would also provide a valuable additional benefit. The improved travel would cause a permanent increase in the productivity of mines and forests. In total they would produce 100 additional ingots each season spread through the mine and forest resources of the territory.
Construction of the great work. and raising a new army, can happen at the same time - but work raising the new army cannot begin until the construction of the great work begins. If anything goes wrong with the road network, then the new army would not be supported and could not be completed.
(OOC: The cost to recreate the Iron Helms has been reduced to bring it into line with recent updates.)