As the world grows cold

            Do not let ye heart beat

            in the same vein.

            A dark trial awaits thee

            who steals others’ flame.

—    Ancient Mesopotamian Proverb

            A steel-plate clad knight galloped hard over the frozen ground. His white horse kicked up snow as more fell to replace it from the sky. The knight named Kelin was returning from the Northern part of the empire. The Kingdom of Arcadia to which he belonged had enjoyed relative autonomy against the other powerful empires in the region. To the West, the prosperous Kingdom of Saxton had been curtailed into a truce which had been in place for over 15 years. The Kingdom of Saxton had been blessed with enormous tracts of precious metals and fertile land. They primarily focused on trade and exploring new technologies, some of which they shared with the Kingdom of Arcadia in exchange for military support. To the East was a land of deserts and intermittent grassy plains fueled by rivers. Since the land was flat, it was much easier to conquer than to defend. The latest conquerors were a band of nomads who traveled swiftly on horseback called the Shün. They migrated out of a land that had scarce resources; they couldn’t compete in trade, so they mastered their own trade of killing.

            Kelin was relieved when he spotted the gray walls of the capital city of Tamriel. He had been to the farthest city in the North of the kingdom, Thornberry, which doubled as a military fortress. The reports from the city had not been good. The Shün were making fast progress towards Arcadia. They had captured every city along the western front of the former Emerald Empire and had suffered relatively few losses in the process. The good news was that the mountain pass which was the fastest path between the two countries was virtually impassable. This meant that they either had to go through the swamp lands of the South, or the woods to the North. The Fox Clan to the South were a group of bandits and thieves that prayed on caravans and individuals who dared traveled to the roads through the Southeast or Southwest roads out of Arcadia. 

            When Kelin entered through the city gates, he stabled his horse at the Royal stables and entered through the inner cloister into the castle. The city was asleep except for a few gas lamps and candles burning in a few citizen’s homes, along with a few torches which the night watch used to cut through the night.

            Kelin had been tasked with this special assignment for he was one of the most gifted horse-riders and a promising soldier whose abilities had been noticed by the First General. The General believed that he could one day take over a military command position once he or any of his three Regiment Leaders had past on. He was definitely not ready yet though; being only 23 years old, he lacked the nuance and tact required with leadership. Anger, yelling, threats, and screaming could only get the troops so far. If you had their hearts, then they would follow you to the end of the World. A soldier driven by forceful words was only a bow string more useful than a mercenary. Many soldiers of Arcadia took up Christianity in order to handle the looming likelihood that they would eventually meet their death of the battlefield. Kelin was not a religious man.

            Kelin was to report directly to King Harold. However, the throne room would be empty at this hour. The King would be in his marble floored bedroom with fine silk seeks and plush pillows. His with his wife, Queen Anabel would also be there, no doubt on the far side of their giant bed. Anabel was 19 years old and had been forced to marry Harold to seal the alliance between Saxton and Arcadia. Her beauty was unmatched in all of Tamriel. She had light skin and a fair complexion with flowing red hair that complemented her steely auburn eyes. The men of the kingdom would jokingly comment that her eyes were worth more than any jewels in the kingdom.

            Her youthful energy was a sharp contrast to the King’s nature. Harold was in his 70’s and wasn’t expected by doctors to live more than 10 years. He didn’t inherit the throne until his older brother had passed away – a snubbing by his father that he would always remember. Harold carried this anger around with him despite being the King. It didn’t help that his beautiful yet political bride did not desire him. She was supposed to bear him children, but was genetically unable too. The few times they did make love, she couldn’t hide her disgust and uncomfortableness from him. Eventually, the act was no longer desirable for him. When Anabel would act show her rebellious nature, Harold would beat her to shut her up and try to get rid of his heavy feelings of anger and resentment.

            Both the King and the Queen started growing farther apart. The King had not yet found a suitable woman to replace Anabel as his official wife, but there were several women willing to satisfy him. The Queen had many admirers but only one man had her heart: Kelin. She felt a rush of energy and excitement every time he starred into her eyes. It killed her knowing she had to suppress her feminine energy when they were in public, lest someone catch wind of what was going on. It was even more painful that there were very few occasions for them to be alone together.

            On one of these rare occasions, Queen Anabel and Kelin confided in each other that they couldn’t bare living this way for much longer. The only between them being together was the King. Harold had started losing favor with the people ever since he increased taxes to pay for the various wars that he started. Even during peacetime, the taxes didn’t go down. People grumbled and complained but as long as the Kingdom was powerful and independent, they found their sacrifice acceptable. Aragon had been decisively defeated in two battles along its Northern border and many citizens started to express doubt as to whether the army and its leadership were competent enough to defeat the seemingly impossible to stop Shün nomads. Anabel and Kelin concocted a plan to overthrow the king.

            The hardest part wouldn’t be the actual killing, but rather gathering support without getting killed. The army and the people supported the King, because they had no other options—if another option became available, then they just might turn on their vile King. The key would be support from the army. If they supported a new ruler, then no one would dare question their decision, or at least not for long. Kelin would talk to his legion and to other officers that he was friendly with. The King was unpopular with the legion because he no longer offered retired knights fertile land for farming, he refused to increase their pay, and he increased mandatory service time for males to 15 years from 10. Members of the army in the region in which he served felt a sense of brotherhood with Kelin. He fought his way from a lowly infantryman to a knight, and eventually a sub-commander. He had been in their shoes. He was one of them. The King was some fat ruler holed up in his Castle in the capital. He didn’t grant them any favors, never visited with them, and only paid them any attention when he needed a battle to be fought. Because of all of these factors, Kelin felt safe following through with his plan.

It had been a week since Kelin visited Thornberry, and word had come back that the city had been destroyed. Even though the armies stationed there had fought bravely, they weren’t enough to stop the thousands of Shün cavalry and infantry. There was some good news however: the battle and its survivors gave the Empire insight into the make-up of the Shün army: their tactics, weapons, and technology. Their infantry was equipped with light armor, bucklers, and scimitars. All of these for easy mobility and swift striking without leaving them too exposed. There were also reports of foot soldiers throwing liquid balls that exploded on impact. The cavalry typically featured two soldiers: one who steered the horse and carried a large shield and sword, the other whom fired a crossbow. It was also said that their soldiers carried flintlock pistols but they typically were only used before an approaching enemy. The archers had longbows that could shoot up to a quarter of a mile and could drop a troop of foot soldiers who were not prepared. The Shün were experts at adapting to the terrain they would be fighting on. They refused to engage in terrain that wasn’t advantageous for them unless it was the best option. It was quite peculiar how they handled new terrain so well—perhaps they had spies in the kingdom feeding them information.

The Shün were seemingly fearless and highly disciplined. Their leader Liyash had his soldiers entranced like a cult leader does to his followers, or the head of religion speaking to its members. They swore their undying loyalty to Liyash. He was not only a skilled warrior, but an excellent political leader. He worked on improving every kingdom that he conquered by rebuilding its destroyed cities and making new improvements that come only from outside knowledge. His nickname was “The Liberator” and his legend was arguably one of the biggest adversaries that opposing kingdoms faced.

The Shün army continued to funnel towards the capital. There was only one problem that awaited them: the combined might of every legion except for 3 awaited them north of Briarwood. It was a chokepoint that would force the Shün to fight straight up.

You might be wondering why two legions did not make the journey. Kelin and his best friend and fellow commander Seth thought that something was up. The Shün were funneling all their troops to the North although the South was accessible as well, just less so due to the swamps and the presence of the Fox Clan.

Kelin did speak to some of the legion commanders who were stationed at the capital when news that Thornberry fell to the Shün had first arrived. There are 12 legions in total ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 men and he had spoken to 5 of them who agreed that the King needed to be replaced. They didn’t all agree that Kelin should be the new King, they thought their new leader should be the highest-ranking military officer – a man who went by Brock. All but 2 of the legions could be trusted with word of the plan, but the details would have to be worked out later when they weren’t dealing with an invasion by a skilled enemy.

            Kelin had arrived in the Southern portion of Arcadia in 4 days, but before then he sent his fastest rider to the fortress of Widow’s Point to gather any intel on the Shün army that might be approaching. When Kelin arrived in Widow’s Point, he was told that they were approaching the border and would be here within 5 days. Kelin then ordered the scout back to the capital to report the news. There was only one problem: he couldn’t wait for word to reach the capital and then for reinforcements from the North to arrive – by that time the Shün would be close to Tamriel. He was desperate, and the only idea he had that could possibly save them made his stomach turn. He planned to meet with the leadership of the Fox Clan and ask for their assistance. Kelin’s very life was at stake and would be placed in the treacherous and greedy palms of the Foxes.

            Kelin traveled with just four other knights – too small to be an army or much of anything besides an escort. The perimeter scouts of the Fox Clan recognized Kelin but didn’t want him passing through their land unescorted. He would wait while they sent word to their leader and he would meet with them. The Fox Clan leader arrived 2 hours later. He wore a hood and a mask as he did not wish to be identified by name or appearance.

            “Speak your business,” the leader said.

            “I’m here to ask for your help in defeating the Shün.”

            “And why would I help you?” the leader asked.

            “Are you so sure that the Shün will bargain with you? They are heralded as liberators, not conquerors. I’m not so sure they’ll turn a blind eye into what would become a stain on the newest region of their utopia.”

            “Hmmph! I don’t trust them… but I don’t trust you either.”

            “Likewise, friend. Your people might be one of the most untrustworthy we’ve ever encountered, but if we don’t work together, we’ll both be living underneath the heel of the Shün. I don’t intend on taking their word that they come as liberators. Do you?” Kelin asked.

            “Of course not, us Foxes know the art of deception well – especially when it’s used to achieve aims that aren’t the kind you would say out loud.”

            “Precisely. I’m the enemy you know, and so are you to me. Let’s work together and defeat the foreign invaders,” Kelin said.

            “What’s in it for us?”

            “You will get to keep all of the spoils of war and you will no longer be persecuted as long as you stay off the main roads.”

            “I’m not so sure about the latter part, but I’m interested in hearing more about what you want from us.”

            “You know these swamps better than we do. You will help us fight the Shun and hold them off long enough until reinforcements arrive.”

            “My men are not fighters,” the leader said.

            “Your men will be in a support role – they will hide and do sneak attacks on the enemy. They will set up traps which will reduce their numbers. We will take care of most of the fighting. Their advantage is reduced in these swamps – they can’t use their cavalry as effectively. We must make a stand here.”

            “So we will. I will send word to some mercenaries to the South that we have work available for them.”

            When the Shün arrived in the swampland, all seemed fine at first. Except it was too peaceful. There had been no sign of the Fox Clan whom their scouts had sighted and made contact with about a potential alliance. Perhaps the sight of their army strolling through would convince the Clan. Suddenly, once they entered one of the narrowest passages of the swamp, men swarmed them on all sides emerging from the water. This was the dirtiest battle they had ever been in, the brush, water, mosquitos, and projectiles coming at them at all angles from behind cover was something they had never experienced before. Liyash himself was traveling with these legions which made up about 75% of their Western front, the legions to the North were just a diversion to shift Aragon’s attention. The armies clashed and moved back and forth a handful of miles each way. The retreats from Aragon were strategic to lead the enemy into traps and the retreats from the Shün were out of desperation and fear. Ultimately, Liyash was killed and the Shün army was routed.

            Word got back to the rest of the kingdom and Kelin was announced a hero for his bravery. The Shün in the North were handily defeated, as they were severely outnumbered. With the Shün in retreat for now, Aragon celebrated and attention returned to Kelin’s plan. By now, the news had reached all of the legions, even the one whose commander was Harold’s right-hand man. The commanders all agreed that Kelin should be the new King, as he saved the kingdom with his bravery and his ingenuity. The highest-ranking commander bestowed his blessing to Kelin, as he was old and had no desire to run a kingdom. He just wanted some good land and to return to his wife.

            The king received news of this plan and fled to the West, past Swabia and wasn’t heard from again. The people not only celebrated the news of the Shün’s defeat, but also the announced marriage between the new King Kelin and the Queen Anabel. It was a time of much celebration – in which the Shün were regrouping in the former Emerald Empire. The Queen reminded Kelin that they said they would rule together. The masculine and the feminine. This sounded good to Kelin’s young ears. But Anabel’s governing and advice to Kelin were selfish in nature and often wicked. The thoughts he had of their marriage being happy and everlasting proved themselves to be nothing but fantasies.

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