A/N: This is a story based on the events of a game I played in Rome: Total War, using the modification Europa Barbarorum. It follows the fortunes of the Sweboz, a confederacy of Germanic tribes in Europe ca. 272 BCE. If you'd like, you're welcome to go to read it on the AAR forums at , where those with short attention spans will doubtless be pleased by the addition of in-game pictures (sometimes). That all said, here we go.

Spring returned to the tribes of Germania the same way it always had; slowly and inexorably, like a gnarled vine slithering up the length of a mighty forest oak. The primeval fields and forests of the land, long buried and suffocated in the cold stillness of winter, were gradually stirred to life once again in the face of nature's warm, creeping embrace. The days grew longer, the wild game grew bolder; and although the dull burn of winter's chill still edged the air, it could not hope to stem the tide of human industry, as the familiar creaking and clattering of cart wheels join the springtime chorus. It was the time and season of rebirth, and optimism for the future.

If a good man is measured, as he ought to be, by his heroic and glorious accomplishments on the field of battle, then King Heruwulfaz laid claim to a rather dull and inauspicious legacy. His beloved and venerable father, the mighty Swartagaizaz, had ended many tumultuous decades of violent pillaging and warfare with his own, suitably violent death on the field of battle. Mortally-wounded, with his life rapidly slipping from his calloused hands, the warrior-king's closest kin begged him to name a successor.

Heruwulfaz, the eldest of Swartigaizaz's four sons, was entirely green and untested, both as a warrior and as a ruler of men; although amongst the Suebi, the two professions were intimately related. As a young child, chronic fatigue and sickness had kept him from accompanying his father on campaign. To make up for this, Heruwulfaz was made to spend his every free moment with pursuits devoted to bettering himself, a regiment he had steadfastly maintained even as King. His mornings were filled with rigorous drills and exercise regiments; his afternoons were spent in the company of refined wise men and soothsayers, who taught the young man how to reason, and how to articulate reason. Both his mind and his body had been finely attuned through practice and education, but in the practical matters of statecraft and the world he was ignorant, and dangerously so. There was only so much time before the appearance of competence would give way to the reality.

"My noble lord?"

Heruwulfaz was literally jolted out of his reprieve; a hollow clap echoed across the hall as the King's head collided with the back of his throne. He massaged the back of his head as he tried to recollect his thoughts. "Speak."

"Your honored guests are here to see you, lord," the guard apologized, keeping his eyes intently trained on his feet. "You requested that you be informed as soon-"

"I know what I requested!" Heruwulfaz snapped, coming perilously close to smashing his elbow against the chair. He found himself consumed with a sudden and irrational irritation towards everything; his hall, his guards, the abrasive itch of his robes against his skin. As quickly as the outburst came it had receded, leaving a deep pit of fatigue in its wake. The king brought a gentle hand to his temple and flippantly waved the other. "Just send them in."

The guard gave a silent bow before disappearing once more beyond the threshold. Heruwulfaz closed his eyes and groaned at this new development; in his preoccupation he had totally forgotten about his guests that were supposed to arrive today. He threw a baleful glare across the breadth of his audience chamber, suddenly filled with a visceral disgust at how sparse and plain it was.

A weak clap of his hands elicited the appearance of a young servant boy, scampering into the room through one of the side doors. In comedicly exaggerated strides, he half-knelt, half-dove to the ground in front of his king and bowed his head. "My lord has a request?"

The crisp and genuine display of subservience seemed to buoy Heruwulfaz; already he could feel the painful tug of his headache receding. Maybe this won't be a complete disaster, after all. "Go quickly and bring my orders to the kitchen servants," he barked with practiced authority. "Tell them to bring food, drink, and accommodations for ten guests." He pointed a hulking finger toward the rushes on the floor. "Put it all right there in the middle. Understand?"

Whatever vocal reply the servant gave was drowned out in a flash, as a small trio of noblemen paraded through the threshold, their chain-mail jingling loudly against their chests. With ceremonial precision, they assembled themselves into a line and dropped to one knee, their hands clasped deferentially together. "Hail."

Heruwulfaz was on his feet in a flash, his stern countenance melting into an expression of unrestrained optimism and joy. "Brothers!" he breathed, descending down from his dais like a reanimated corpse, his arms limply outstretched on either side. He took a few steps, and then abruptly ground to a halt.

The euphoria on the king's face crumbled into an instant, usurped by a heavy veil of tired sadness. His muscled arms dropped to his sides like wet seaweed left to hang. "You are not my brothers," he asserted, staring at each one as if he hoped they might magically transform into the familiar kin he had expected.

"We…are not your brothers by birth, lord," one of the men tried, his words slowly building momentum as if even they could sense their own futility. "But we are your kin through oath and battle, sworn to carry out your sovereign will."

"What's more," another blurted, his voice charged with the impetuous of flash genius, "we bring word from your brothers, who have much they wish to relay to you!"

Heruwulfaz crossed his arms, slowly settling back into his original state of aloof arrogance. "Speak, then."

My lord, your brother Athawulfaz stands steadfastly against the opportunistic raiders of the Rugoz…

"That's them…yes, I'm sure of it," the warrior whispered, slowly inching himself sideways until he was adjacent to his lord. The leaves of the forest floor scarcely so much as rustled at the touch. "That's the standard of Rugoz on their shields, right there. And a warband would never march with that sort of wealth on their person." He nodded vigorously, as if it were himself he needed to convince. "Yes, this is definitely them."

Just a few dozen meters out of the forest, oblivious to the noose being fashioned around their necks, the warriors of the Rugoz marched towards home, their worn and blistered feet quickened by the twin blessings of victory and fame. Their recent raid across the river into the lands of the Sweboz was merely the latest in a long and successful series of raids, all of which had consistently ended in ruin for the Sweboz. Morale was high, discipline was lax; warriors drank freely and took trinkets from the carts and the spoils were ferried onward towards the river. Even the experienced scouts at the front of the pack failed to notice the wild mass of fiery red hair nestled in the treeline.

The red-headed giant of a man known as Athawulfaz grinned, clapping his scout's shoulder with a genial hand that threatened the burst the frail woodsman's lungs. "Excellent work," he lauded, clumsily trying to ready his dagger from his low vantage point on the grass. "They won't get away from us this time." He turned his head to the right and nudged the prostate figure at his side. "When I give the signal, you give yours, got it?"

The man silently pulled a long tube from beneath his person and nodded, his gaunt face flush with anticipation at the thought of the justice to come. "On your signal, lord" he murmured.

The placid stillness of the morning was shattered in an instant by the raucous cacophony of horns and drums. On either side of the road men leaped from the dense cover of the woods like malignant spirits, their throats echoing with furious war cries as they descended upon those who had profited from the suffering of their people. Drunken Rugoz warriors tried to brandish whatever weapons they had, swinging in a panic at both friend and foe alike.

"Not one more treasure taken!" Athawulfaz cried, his face contorting into a grin of sadistic glee as he cleaved his way through one warrior after another. "None may live!" He rounded his fury on a helpless juguntiz, batting the youth's flimsy shield away with a single arc of his fist. The helpless warrior threw up his hands and cringed, but Athawulfaz was true to his own word. His blood-caked hands slid along the hilt of the dagger as he readied it once again, crashing it through the thick mantle of the Rugoz's heart with a dense squish. The bare-chested victim shuddered violently, gagging and coughing in a fit of panicked hysteria until he finally toppled to the ground.

While your other brother, Ansuharjaz, impresses upon the western tribes the strength of our host…

"-and I have just about had it with these senseless attacks on our herds!"

A single guard stepped tepidly into the open doorway, awkwardly wielding his spear as if it were a broomstick. He gazed up at the enraged man he had accosted, wondering if it was too late to change his mind. "My most sincere apologies to your lordship, but you cannot-"

"Don't tell me what I can and can't do!" the man roared, towering over the timid warrior until the two men's noses practically touched. "I am a noble and vested lord of the Heruzkoz," he insisted, pushing his way effortless past the hapless doorman, "and by the Gods, my complaints will be heard!"

"Peace, friend."

The two words were spoken so calmly that it was a wonder anybody even heard them at all. The Heruzkoz diplomat froze where he stood and slowly swiveled around, seeming to relax himself as he beheld the well-kempt nobleman striding across the length of the hall. "Are you the lord they call Ansuharjaz of the Sweboz?"

Ansuharjaz touched his hand to his chest and offered his most disarming smile. "Indeed I am? And who are you, noble lord, that your duties compel you to such haste?" He slowly sank into his chair and offered the other to his guest.

It was obvious that the diplomat had been eagerly anticipating the question. With childlike exuberance he assumed his full height and locked his arms together, turning his nose up like a haughty dictator of the lands to the south. "I am Segumerjaz of the Heruzkoz," he boomed to his nonexistent audience. "And I come bearing a complaint."

"Well then," Ansuharjaz grinned, looking distinctly unimpressed by his guest's auspicious title. "Let us see what we can do about that, shall we."

An impatient jerk of his hand sent the few servants in the room scurrying; with the other he beckoned for the diplomat to take a seat. "Come, relax. Explain to me your complaint."

Segumerjaz did as he was asked, cautiously settling himself into the chair as if he expected a trap. "My complaint, if you will, represents a long list of grievances that my lord feels he can no longer abide by."

Ansuharjaz shrugged, the faintest trace of sarcasm creeping into his voice. "It is refreshing to hear someone speak so plainly."

"Do not mock me," the diplomat snapped peevishly. "I wanted to impress upon you that this is not an isolated affair. For over a year now we've been putting up with waves of violence coming from Sweboz lands. Livestock are killed, homes are robbed; this is a serious matter."

"Sounds like the work of lay criminals," Ansuharjaz suggested with a yawn. "Over which we have no jurisdiction."

"Feeble excuse!" Segumerjaz roared, his accusation choking in his throat. "You have done nothing to try and keep order on our border; have you so quickly forgotten when our warriors used to scour the frontier so that your king wouldn't need to worry about some ridiculous wolf migration!"

"King Swartagaizaz is dead," Ansuharjaz retorted testily, "and King Heruwulfaz now reigns. Do not confuse the policies of the father for the policies of the son."

Segumerjaz stood from his chair in a huff, the hairs of his mustache practically bristling with indignation. "Then be sure you do not confuse our kindness with weakness."

Ansuharjaz snarled and spat a thick green wad onto the floor. A puerile chuckle escaped him at the sight. "Your weakness is remarkable on it own merit, dog."

The Heruzkoz diplomat left in a hurry, his head bowed low.

Hrabnaz, your loyal brother in the south, begs you to send him more supplies…

The afternoon rainfall was like a divine blessing, soft and warm. After enduring months of winter's cold, dry grasp, the spring rains served as an exhortation to activity; nature's way of apologizing for her cruel blizzards. The plants and trees of the forests found a renewed luster; young children dove and splashed through the muddy puddles on the bog roads. There was surely nobody who could hold ill will against the first showers of spring.

"Damned rain," Hrabnaz cursed, impatiently brushing the moisture from his eyes as he tried once again to align his shot. "Of all the useless times to have a storm."

For the umpteenth time the warrior drew his bow, squinting into the distance at the blurry mound which occupied his efforts. Whatever the deer was doing, it clearly wasn't in a hurry; for well over ten minutes now the beast had lingered there, picking at tufts of grass as if they were fine delicacies. Every now and then the creature would give a sudden start, as if it could intuitively sense its demise approaching. Each time, however, it was quick to relax again.

Hrabnaz knew he couldn't afford to wait any longer; he couldn't let this chance elude him. Months of constant skirmishing against raiders and the elements had left him and his men desperate for whatever they could find. The opportunities for wild game in the area had dwindled significantly, and some of the more industrious warriors amongst them had turned to unsanctioned raids across the border into the Silengoz lands to get what they needed.

Plea after plea had been sent back to Swebotraustasamnoz, beginning King Heruwulfaz for supplies; so far, these pleas had evidently fallen on deaf ears. Hrabnaz's retinue and associates tried to allay some of the noble's darker concerns, but his thoughts could not be kept from wandering onto dangerous topics. What had compelled their father to give Heruwulfaz the throne, anyway? Of course he was the oldest, but what did age matter? When Heruwulfaz had been cowering in bed with the chills, it was Hrabnaz and his other brothers who had accompanied their father to war, spilling blood and enduring hardships at his side.

Was it simple jealousy; did Heruwulfaz, in his shame, seek to erase his kin from history by pushing their lives and achievements into the shadows? Was it something more sinister and politically motivated than that? For that matter, was the treatment Hrabnaz felt he received even real?

The conflicted young lord felt his fingers release the end of the arrow. He heard the low whistling as it flew, with perfect straightness, out of the cluster of the brush and straight into the broad flanks of the unsuspecting deer. It kicked pathetically before sprawling limply into the mud.

Hrabnaz breathed a huge sigh as he returned his bow to its place in the satchel. If nothing else, he would eat tonight.