This is a work that's been in progress on and off for over a year (It's the first fanfic I ever started), but after many false starts and partial abandonments, I finally decided that I had enough down for an initial offering, and it was time to give it some air before it started to stink. It's based on the excellent "Prophecy of Pendor" mod for Mount and Blade Warbands. If you haven't played the mod, or if God forbid, you've missed out on M&B entirely, do yourself a favor and get over to the Taleworlds website (or Steam) immediately and buy it. You can find links to the PoP mod in the dedicated subforum at Taleworlds as well.

I may be adding to this story later (this is volume I, after all), but to be honest I've got a lot of other projects that are ahead of it in the queue, so don't expect anything more on this anytime soon.

ORIGINS OF THE PENDORIAN REBIRTH: REFLECTIONS ON THE RISE OF MEREDAIN MURCATTO, VOLUME I

By his holiness Henri Foucher, Bicop of Marleon, First Sage of the Imperial Library, and Keeper of the Seals

Chapter I: Origins of an Empress

It has become customary, in these later years, to consider the rise of Meredain Murcatto from mercenary to queen, and subsequently to empress, as the smooth working out of a preordained destiny, a brief adventure and a short, victorious war followed by an extended coronation. In fact, the three years of the crown unification wars were among the most uncertain and bloody in Pendorian history (which is a remarkable statement in itself, considering the blood-soaked origins of our empire). It is the purpose of the present work to examine more closely the actual events of the years 345-347 FFP, in an attempt to understand the remarkable events of that year, and the true role Meredain I played in the establishment of the Kingdom of Pendor and the beginnings of the Pendorian Empire. It is to this end that I, Henri Fouchier, set my pen to paper, at the fourth hour of the new day in the monastery of Eunomia Stabilitis, in the city of Marleon, on the 13th day of March, in the year 512 after the founding of Pendor.

Chapter II: Setting the Stage: Pendor in 345

When discussing Meredain I, we must first make a rather careful distinction between Meredain Murcatto, the historical leader, and the Divine First Empress, as revered by the Imperial Cult. I am a historian; I will confine myself to speaking of her role in the reunification of Pendor while living and walking among men as a physical person. I leave the metaphysics of her true identity and place in the pantheon to others. As a historical figure, Meredain Murcatto towers over the other notables of her age like the proverbial oak among pines. For such a pivotal character, however, we know surprisingly little about her origins and early life. We do not, for instance, know with certainty where she was born and raised, nor even the name of her father. We reason to believe that her father's name was Dain Murcatto, as she dedicated a monastery near Burglen to him. The similarity to her own name is interesting. Some scholars have speculated that it might contain a clue to her mother's name as well, as her name might well have been a combination of "Mere," "Mari" or" Meria" with her father's name, but this is merely conjecture based on a single, ambiguous line in Julia of Ethos's Historia Merediana. However, given the chronicler's long personal relationship with Meredain I, we should consider that if anyone was likely to know the origin of her name, it would have been Julia. Regardless, it is likely that no aspect of her origins will ever be fully understood, as she never encouraged inquiry on the subject during her reign and may even have actively discouraged it. This has led to rumors that she was protecting some unsavory secret, but it is far more likely that she simply preferred widespread speculation on a mysterious origin to certain knowledge of a mundane one that might have weakened her grip on the throne.

As interesting as such inquiry may be, this work is not intended to rehash the details of the personal history of Meredain, but rather to examine the role she played in the last three years of the crown wars (generally recognized as spanning the period 202-347 FFP). Thus, we begin our story in the year 345 FFP. Although later priests and historians have identified dozens of signs and symbols to herald the arrival of Meredain Murcatto to the shores of Pendor, contemporary writers (notably Madame Ursula of Ravenstern) made no such observations. It is likely that no one expected much out of the future besides continued war, chaos, and instability.

January-February, 345 FFP

The future Meredain I seems to have arrived on the shores of Pendor early in the year, possibly in late January or early February. It seems likely she arrived by ship, but there is no certainty of this either. The January date seems more probable, given the travel time necessary to reach Sarleon from the coast. It is likely she travelled by caravan, as travelling alone was prohibitively dangerous. The state of Pendorian roads at this time in history was rather deplorable, which is unsurprising after nearly one hundred and fifty years of intermittent war, and this may also have slowed her journey. Later religious theorists have surmised all sorts of explanations for this delay, including many different stories of adventures and delays, some even going so far as to suggest a wildly speculative meeting with UllrVettr, Astrea, and Eunomia Stabilitis. Regardless, while her whereabouts during this period of time are murky, the most probable explanation remains a long journey to the heart of the Kingdom of Sarleon.

Chapter III: Mercenary

We find our first solid evidence of Meredain's presence in Pendor in the form of a surviving account written by a prominent merchant of Sarleon who paid her to raise a small mercenary band for the purpose of rescuing his sister from a band of heretics. By March, we have pay records for a Captain Murcatto in the service of King Ulric of Sarleon. Her mercenary company seems to have grown rapidly in size, from under twenty in March through over two hundred in May. March saw some skirmishing and a number of pitched battles between Sarleon and the Fierdsvain. Murcatto seems to have been very successful during this time, reflected in the massive increase in her pay. A surviving account shows a very significant payment for her work made during the last week of April:

For service to King Ulric of Sarleon, Lord of Sarleon, Protector of the Pendorian Kingdom, Master of the Warhost and King of Men, may his reign endure forever, from my hand to the clerk known as Larissa, the duly appointed representative of Captain Meredain Murcatto, a payment of 6530 gold nobles, in full payment for service during the fourth week of April, in the year 345 FFP. This sum to compris [sic] the full payment due, minus customary taxes, duties and fees owed to the king in the amount of 1160 gold nobles.

Edmund Darbris, Kings's Bursar

As always, the most reliable records are tax records. It is worth noting that similar surviving bills indicate that this was an unusually large fee for a mercenary company to command, and suggests that her company was considered a valuable asset to the Kingdom. Contemporary accounts bear this out – she repeatedly defeated several lords and Warchiefs of the Fierdsvain, including three separate victories over Inar Hairybreeks, the colorfully-named marshall of the Fierdsvain. Even this early, we begin to see signs that Meredain Murcatto had plans for the future, as she regularly released defeated lords without requesting ransom payments. There are a few exceptions. Hrothgar the Fat seems to have spurned her generosity on the first occasion of his capture, and paid repeatedly for this lack of judgment later. Even so early in her career, Meredain Murcatto seems to have made a generous friend and a bad enemy. Her record on the field is impressive – but she seems to have still been learning the basics of intrigue. Later accounts suggest she was captured attempting to infiltrate Windholm at the behest of King Ulric to meet with a spy and spent several days in prison before she was exchanged for another prisoner at the cessation of hostilities on April 26th. Apparently city officials were unaware of her true identity, or it is likely they would have dealt with her far more harshly. The end of April finds her back in Sarleon, collecting her company's pay and preparing for King Ulric's May offensive against the Empire Remnant.

Chapter IV: Noble

May, 345 FFP

King Ulric was unsatisfied with the resolution of his war with the Fierdsvain. Their offensives had been blunted and no territory had been lost, but he had been unable to organize the lords effectively, and a number of villages had been burned. He removed Duke Brennus from the marshalship, and in a surprise move, ennobled Meredain Murcatto, granted her rights to the disputed fief of Burglen (which made her noble in theory, but left her with virtually no financial support), and appointed her marshall. This surprising move can be explained with a little thought. First, maintaining a mercenary of her caliber was clearly very expensive, but experience had shown that she was the only leader in his faction he could rely upon to win battles and effectively and aggressively prosecute an offensive. By ennobling her and granting her a theoretical fief (then in Bacchus Empire territory) he not only removed a major financial burden from his treasury, but also bound her to his service permanently. In addition, he provided her with a strong incentive to gain territory in the Empire during the upcoming campaign, which he appears to have begun planning while the ink was still dry on the peace treaty with Koningur Valdis. Further, by making her Marshall he not only chose a lord absolutely in his debt, but also one who had forged strong relationships with his nobles in battle while remaining encumbered by the history of petty disputes over land and politics that had created so many enmities among the lords of the kingdom. So in the newly-minted Lady Meredain, he found a leader who was not only strategically and tactically brilliant, but also capable of uniting his factious nobles in his name. This was a political masterstroke, and laid the groundwork for a very successful campaign.

Ulric was an interesting leader, and deserves a short mention here. His life, reign, and role in this story are well described in Clarissa of Pent's "The Last King of Sarleon," so we will limit ourselves to pointing out that the evidence suggests that he was quite a canny and thoughtful individual. It is likely that Meredain learned a great deal about statecraft and politics by observing him. That he did not forsee his eventual defeat and exile by his former protégé does tend to argue that his foresight and cunning did have severe limits, but overall he seems to have been a clever, if weak, monarch.

Chapter V: The Marleons Campaign June, 345 FFP

The Marleons campaign is often studied in the modern era by military cadets at the academy, particularly in conjunction with Meredain's later campaigns against the D'Shar. She seems to have quickly grasped that the empire's strong infantry and weak horse called for a strong, defensive stance. By convincing her nobles and knights to dismount and fight on foot in support of her archers, she was able to pin, flank and crush imperial forces in a series of small battles, culminating in her defeat of Marius Imperator near Pern early in June. With the Empire's field armies in disarray, the way to Marleons was clear, and the city fell on June 11th, 345. Meredain seems to have somehow managed to prevent the looting and destruction of property so typical in the conquest of settlements during this age, and this was to set a trend for all of her campaigns. King Ulric appears to have felt that it was appropriate to award the city to her both for political and practical reasons. It cemented her role as a noble, a leader of the kingdom, and his trusted lieutenant, and also give her enough revenue to support her growing army. He also thus sidestepped a nasty dispute between two competing lords over who had the stronger claim to the city. No one could dispute her capabilities, her right to the city by conquest, or her need for a strong base of operations. With the traditional southern border of the Kingdom of Sarleon reestablished, the focus of the campaign turned to the acquisition of new lands in the remnants of the Bacchus Empire.

Chapter VI: Meredain I and the Noldor June-July, 345 FFP

There is no doubt that an important turning point was at hand in the history of Pendor, although it is unlikely that anyone was aware of this at the time. With the Marleons campaign concluded and Empire forces in disarray, Murcatto dispersed the warhost to mop up the remaining enemy lords and to deal with individual business. She herself seems to have made all speed to Marleons, where she began an ambitious reconstruction program under her clerk Leslie (later Leslie of Ethos) while she herself concentrated on clearing the vicinity of bandits, deserters, and the ever-present Red Brotherhood slavers.

Shortly after clearing a bandit lair, Murcatto seems to have encountered a scouting force of the (then) semi-legendary Noldor, who fled before making more than fleeting contact. That she was able to find and identify the elusive Noldor at all is a tribute to her skill in organizing scouts and patrols, and to the quality of the light horse and infantry who served her in those roles. It is unclear whether there is a connection between the two, but shortly afterwards a new advisor with an unusual name appears on the pay receipts carefully preserved in the imperial library in Marleons. How Lethaldiran came into her employ is not clearly understood, but the timing suggests that either he was encountered in conjunction with her brush with the Noldor patrol, or that she intentionally sought him out afterwards. This is pure speculation, however, and it is equally possible that she simply met him at the local tavern while he was in-between jobs.

Certainly there is ample evidence that he was at the time well into a decades-long career as a professional assassin. Meredain must have been very strongly concerned about the potential role of the Noldor to recruit an individual with such questionable morals – she was notably squeamish about civilian casualties, and must have had to engage in much soul-searching before deciding to recruit a known hired killer. Regardless, his presence among her forces opened up new possibilities in dealing with the Noldor. It is impossible to know her motivations at the time, but it is possible that Meredain was already considering the role the Noldor might play in a resurgent Pendorian Kingdom. No matter how it happened that Lethaldiran came to serve her, the timing of these events may be one of the strongest arguments for the hand of fate, or the gods themselves, in the events to come.

On June 28, 345 FFP, Baron Gaidon reported to the marshall that he had engaged and defeated (at heavy cost) a small force of unusual individuals appearing to match the description of the Noldor. Murcatto seems to have dropped whatever she was doing and made all speed to intercept him, as we find a transfer order in her name, countersigned by the Baron's quartermaster, dated 30 June. The document itself is terse and to the point:

Received this 30th day of June from the person of the Lady Marshall, Duchess Meredain Murcatto, the sum of 9,000 gold nobles, in ransom of 14 prisoners of war of unusual aspect, along with all weapons and arms captured among them, said prisoners already in the personal custody of the Lady Marshal, herself.

This was a truly princely ransom, when we consider that Marius Imperator was ransomed later in the year for only 8,600 gold nobles, and tells us a great deal about the value Meredain placed on these prisoners. It is also worthwhile to note that the captured Noldor were already in her custody when the ransom was paid. This was not at all standard policy for the time, and we can only guess at how it was achieved. Either the level of trust between the Baron and Duchess was sufficient to warrant such an unusual arrangement, or Meredain demanded them in no uncertain terms, and offered the ransom as a sop to Gaidon's pride. Either way, Lethaldiran himself records what happened next.

When the host arrived at Marleons, the future queen then ordered food and raiment be brought to the defeated People, and water for bathing, and when they had been arrayed, noble and commoner alike, in fine cloth and gold, she had all of The People brought out to the courtyard before the castle, and addressed them in such wise, and I myself translated:

You, the people of tree and hill, have fought valiantly, though we never intended you harm. Go forth, and back to your homes under leaf, and tell unto your lords and leaders that Meredain Murcatto wishes their friendship and no further enmity between her people and yours henceforth.

Then she returned unto them their arms and armor, and even their horses, and provided others who had lost theirs with mounts from her personal store, and then she sent them forth through the city gates with an armed escort and much fanfare, and the people crowded the streets to see them.

The claim about not meaning harm should probably be viewed with skepticism. There is no doubt whatsoever that Baron Gaidon meant them harm, and probably coveted their arms and equipment, they being so much better than that available among human kingdoms. Interestingly, none of the sources we have for the event records any response from the Noldor. Perhaps they said nothing at all – given the minimal contact between the races, they are unlikely to have known any of the human dialects of the time. Other details in the account are interesting. Why did they need an armed escort? Was it to protect them from the people, or the people from them? Perhaps it was simple caution; the people of Marleons had almost certainly never seen Noldor before – very few humans had – and their curiosity, coupled with armed Noldor who had recently endured wounds and captivity might have been a dangerous combination. Regardless, this represents a critical point in the history of Pendor. For the first time in history, a human leader had sought the aid and friendship of the Noldor. We have no way of assessing what negotiations, if any, occurred during their time in Marleons or afterwards, but later events would make it clear that a sea change in human-Noldor relations was at hand.

Chapter VII: The Janos Campaign

July-August, 345 FFP

Most of Meredain's biographers recognize three distinct campaigns conducted by the future empress while she served Ulric of Sarleon. The first, the Marleons campaign, is notable primarily because it was her first and most surprising to her contemporaries. Other than that, it was neither long in duration nor remarkable in scope. The same is not true of the subsequent two campaigns.

Ulric vacillated between ambitions; on the one hand, he coveted the rich cities of the south and the lands of the Bacchus Empire. On the other, he was daily confronted with reports of the Fierdsvain's constant raiding of eastern settlements. His decision to order his armies south may be seen either as a reasoned strategy to deal with the more organized threat first, or alternatively as an impulse-driven vanity project. Regardless, Meredain summoned the host to assemble by the 5th day of June at Sarleon, and began supply preparations immediately. We have an enormous quantity of information on this particular instance of pre-campaign supply – a particularly detail-oriented quartermaster took careful note of every tun of salted fish or loaf of bread. Somehow, a chest of receipts and purchase orders written in his tiny, crabbed handwriting made its way into the collection of the Imperial Library, simultaneously providing future scholars with the benefit of a treasure trove of minutia and the mind-numbing task of sorting through and deciphering them. Several particularly dry works on the subject have been produced over the years by researchers at the Royal University of Marleons.

The campaign seems to have been delayed by at least a week – several important lords and their hosts were delayed, possibly by weather. It appears that the army got underway on the 13th or 14th of June, and arrived at Savador Keep by the 16th. They promptly invested the city, and in characteristic Murcatto style launched an assault on the walls just as soon as ladders could be built. Traditional siege assaults before this point seem to largely have been indecisive affairs involving days of skirmishing and construction by professional siege engineers, many of whom seem, against all economic logic, to have been paid by the week. Meredain chose instead to carry out an immediate surprise assault and seems to have caught the defenders off guard. The castle fell in a matter of hours. Leaving Baron Gaidon and his retinue to garrison the keep, Meredian moved with all speed to Rela Keep, which seems to have fallen to similar tactics on the 22nd. Lord Eric was left in temporary control of the castle, and the host proceeded to their primary target, the capital city of Janos. Marius Imperator was in residence, with his entire host and personal guard, making the city exceptionally well defended. Meredain seems to have used similar tactics, launching ladder parties against the walls under cover of great clouds of arrows. It is at Janos that we first hear of her skill with the bow, as she is said to have killed a number of defenders at improbable ranges.

"And many of the defenders taunted our host, jeering and slapping their buttocks, certain of their safety due to their great distance from the army. But the duchess took up her great ruby bow, and smote three of them dreadfully, even though they were twice, even three times, the reach of a lesser archer."

Excerpt from The life of the Empress, by Hamar Elricsson, 362 FFP.

This is an important passage, not only because it illustrates the tactical advantage in range and marksmanship that Meredain brought to the army, but also because it is the first reference we have to the legendary Ruby Bow, to which many later accounts ascribe divine origin. The most popular among these suggests that UllrVettr himself appeared to her near snowy Rane and bestowed it upon her to aid her in her attempt to reunify the kingdom. This is almost certainly a later invention, and may have been intended to show that Meredain's rule was ordained by the gods months in advance. Regardless of its origin, the bow figures prominently in a very large number of accounts, and does seem to have been of exceptional power and range.

The siege of Janos was bloody, but decisive. The defenders were swept from the walls by the superior archery and rate of fire achieved by the sarleon longbowmen, while halberdiers and Meredain's handpicked body of knights rushed the walls with ladders and quickly established themselves on the ramparts. Despite heavy casualties, they were able to back the defenders long enough for archers to reach the top of the wall and rain shafts down on the remaining defenders in the courtyard. Casualties among the ladder parties were significant, but by late in the day the fighting had moved to the streets. Meredain seems to have been wounded in the initial assault, but recovered to lead the attack on the keep itself in the center of Janos. The garrison finally surrendered around sunset, but the descending darkness may have complicated efforts to control the scattered attackers and defenders, as sporadic fighting seems to have gone on throughout the night. By the morning of the 5th of July, the city was quiet at last, but quite a bit of blood and butchery had occurred under cover of darkness. Meredain was enraged by the number of civilian casualties, and seems to have been inclined to make examples. She presided personally over the public execution of twelve men found engaging in rapine and looting, at least one of whom was a knight.

With Marleons and Janos in Sarleon hands, plus all of the castles in the Janos valley, Meredain was prepared to push south to Cez and Ethos and break the back of the Empire. However, she received orders from the king to halt the offensive so that he and his lords could celebrate the victory with a feast. Larissa tells us that she was enraged by what can only be seen as a silly and arbitrary decision by her liege. Given the blood already spilled, she wanted to push on and end the Empire as a threat to the Kingdom. To stop so prematurely would guarantee much greater future bloodshed once the reeling Empire regained their balance. It is probably at this point that the future Empress began to realize that Ulric might not be the kind of leader who could unify or rule a united Pendor.

Angry but still dutiful, the duchess ended the campaign and disbanded the host. For her efforts, she was awarded the castles at Savador and Rela, in addition to the city of Janos. Julia of Ethos claims that Meredain did not request any of these settlements, although this seems surprising, and may have been a later attempt to refute allegations of excessive ambition. Regardless, this presented Meredain with a strategic problem, as she was now responsible for a broad swath of the south, in addition to Marleons farther to the north. She requested permission to ennoble a number of her companions to hold the castles from her in fief, but was refused. Ulric may have been excessively trusting, but he was always conscious of his dignity, and granting fiefs had always been a prerogative limited to the king. The remainder of July and much of August were spent feasting and jousting, as the nobles of Sarleon celebrated another victory, but Meredain must have been fuming. It is difficult to know how much friction this episode created between king and vassal, but the bloom was certainly off of the rose with regards to her opinion of her liege.

Chapter VIII: The Northern Campaign

September-October, 345 FFP

By August, the king had again summoned the lords to Sarleon, but rather than renewing the campaign to the south, he dispatched the Lady Marshall and the host to curb the aggression of the Fierdsvain in the east. Contemporary sources give no hint of Meredain's reaction to this vacillation, but most of her biographers agree that she viewed this division of attention as both ill-advised and arbitrary. Always the strategist, she cannot have been happy with fighting on two fronts, especially as reports from the south suggested Marius Imperator was rapidly rearming for war.

The host departed Sarleon on the 12th of August, travelling north. Meredain seems to have been determined not to give the king a chance to spoil the offensive, as she pushed her men hard, taking Knudarr castle, Kalredan Castle, and Ansen Lodge within a week, clearing the path to Javiksholm. While in the field, she encountered a still unidentified lord of the D'shar, who was in the process of leading the full host of the tribes east, probably in response to the same uncontrolled raiding that brought her to the lands of the Fierdsvain. After several days of discussions, it was apparently decided that the D'shar host would travel northeast and campaign against Valonbray and its associated fortifications while Murcatto proceeded against the capital at Javiksholm. Koningur Valdis, finally realizing his peril, summoned his full host and met the Sarleon forces in battle a few miles outside of the city. The battle of Kulum was at the time one of the largest pitched battles in a generation, with the full force of two kingdoms on the field and the future of the east at stake. The numbers of men on the field may seem small by modern standards, but given the depopulated state of Pendor following the ravages of the red death and generations of warfare, the 4600 men who fought on the 23rd of August represented about a quarter of the entire fighting strength of the land of Pendor. That such a force, even gathered together on the same side, would number less than a single legion today should remind us of the pitiable state in which our homeland found itself in the middle of the third century.

Fierdsvain forces took up a strong defensive position on a hill near the village of Kulum, hoping to neutralize the advantage in missile troops and cavalry enjoyed by the forces of Sarleon. In response, Meredain brought up her archers to engage the Fierdsvain's superior infantry. After being under fire for fifteen minutes without the ability to respond, the infantry charged (apparently without orders). Meredain skillfully pulled the archers back behind her footsoldiers and, once the two infantry formations were engaged, charged her cavalry home into the exposed right flank of the Fierdsvain infantry. Unaccustomed to the shock of a heavy cavalry charge, the formation shattered, and many of these normally stalwart warriors broke and ran. While the cavalry hunted down the fleeing footmen, the Sarleon infantry advanced again, now under the personal control of the Lady Marshall.

The state of confusion was such among the Fierdsvain ranks that the Sarleon infantry was able to reach Valdis's cavalry reserve before the order to attack could be given. Caught standing still in formation, the cavalry were desperately vulnerable to the halberds and maces of Murcatto's troops. By early afternoon, the day was clearly lost for the Fierdsvain. The Lady Valkyries rallied around Valdis and tried to escort him from the field, but, to his credit, he refused to flee while his men were still engaged. At least one eyewitness claims that he was felled in the final assault by an arrow shot by the duchess personally. The wound was not fatal, but he was knocked from his horse and captured. Casualties among the Fierdsvain were horrific – barely two hundred survived to be captured or escape. Seven lords, including the Koningur himself, were captured, and three fled the field. With the majority of Fierdsvain manpower dead or in flight, Javiksholm fell with barely a whimper on September 1st.

Chapter IX: The Fate of a Kingdom

November - December, 345 FFP

Leaving Duke Brennus in temporary command of the castle, Meredain gathered the host and pushed onward towards Windholm and absolute victory, when the unthinkable happened again. A peremptory summons from King Ulric demanded the presence of all of his lords at a banquet in honor of their great victory, to be held at Sarleon. Once again, King Ulric's political and social ambitions had derailed Murcatto's attempt to reunify Pendor under the banner of Sarleon. There is a popular legend, told in the east to this day, that the famous "splintered door" of Javiksholm Keep was the product of Meredain's reaction to this news. While certainly an entertaining story, such an action seems out of character for the woman once famously (or perhaps infamously) described by a Ravenstern ambassador as having "all the warmth and passion of a Mystmountain lake in midwinter." Ansen of Avendor, her onetime squire and longtime friend, tells us that she read the letter without visible emotion, crumpled it in her fist, and left the audience hall immediately, and this does seem a more credible story, especially given the source.

There is an interesting, and possibly noteworthy delay of several days between when she received the letter and when preparations seem to have begun to depart Javiksholm. It is possible that she was already coming to terms with the realization that she could not rely upon King Ulric to bear the responsibilities of a serious attempt at reunifying Pendor. It is equally possible that she had long since decided on her eventual course, and was simply pondering whether or not to put the long held plan into action. The banquet was uneventful, although later biographers and historians have labored to identify some sign of the coming storm in contemporary sources. That no such obvious warnings appear in the chronicles or accounts of the day suggest that either Meredain was playing her cards very close to the chest indeed, or that she had not yet finally determined to break with Ulric.

Chapter X: The Die is Cast

New Year's Eve, 345 FFP

The actual event, when it came, could not have been more dramatic. The Duchess of Marleons had returned to her city in late November, and spent most of the next month closeted with her advisors and companions. We can imagine her standing alone before the great rose window in Marleons Keep far into New Year's night, contemplating the possible consequences of the choices laid before her. Sometime before dawn, she must have reached a final decision, or perhaps she simply sought to associate the birth of her new kingdom with the symbolic beginning of the New Year. Just before the sun rose, she rode out of the keep, accompanied by only three Rangers of the Clarion Call and a long string of remounts. The small party rode hard for Sarleon, arriving in only half a day. She strode, unannounced, into the great hall, where King Ulric sat in audience on the silver throne of Pendor. In the hushed and shocked silence, she spoke in short, terse sentences, first of her gratitude to the King, and then of her defiant declaration that she could no longer serve a liege who did not himself serve the best interests of the people. Clarissa of Pent claims to have read a transcript in court documents, so her rendering of the speech may be most accurate.

My liege, it has been my great honor to serve you in vassalage. You have raised me up, and always rewarded me fairly for my efforts. It is with great sadness that I say that I can no longer serve you. You have not treated the commoners with decency and respect, nor have you pressed home your attacks against the enemies holding our shattered land in chains. If this kingdom is to be reunited, it is clear that someone else must do it. I ask your release from my oath of vassalage, and beg your forgiveness for doing what must be done.

With tears in her eyes, she laid down the marshall's staff of office, and the sword Ulric had given her at her knighting, and strode back through the doors, leaving stunned silence in her wake. No one seems to have been more shocked than the King, who neither stood nor spoke, sitting in stunned silence until his advisors had cleared the audience chamber of petitioners and lords alike. Perhaps due to simple shock, or perhaps because he did not yet realize how serious was the break between the Duchess and himself, no orders were given to halt Meredain's flight. It is unlikely that it would have mattered, in any event. Her escort had been waiting outside the keep, remounts at the ready and a champion gold-maned courser saddled and waiting for her. They rode hell-for-leather through the streets of Sarleon and out the main gate into the teeth of a gathering storm.

Chapter XI: The Declaration

The ride back from Sarleon to Marleons through the growing blizzard must have been hellish. Meredain and her escort could have no way of knowing that they were not being pursued. As conditions steadily worsened, it must have seemed that they were pushing recklessly into the teeth of winter itself, with uncertainty behind and before them. The bells in the cathedral had just struck eight when the Duchess was sighted at the gate. Within hours, the word of her deed had spread. Meredain was much loved among her people in Marleons, and the town quickly rallied around her. Knights in their manors and commoners in taverns were for once united in demanding that she declare an independent kingdom. There must have been at least some more reflective souls that understood that this could lead only to civil war, and darker days yet to come, but all of the eyewitness accounts of the day emphasize joy and eager anticipation on the part of the populace.

The following morning dawned clear, with fresh snow on the ground. The expected announcement, when it finally came about 10 am in the city square, was greeted with roars of approval, but her bold declaration that the new principality aspired to unite Pendor again into a single kingdom must have struck even such loyal supporters as extremely ambitious. Or perhaps not; certainly similar rhetoric accompanied the coronations and speeches of all of the factions of the day, so it may simply have been understood as the usual posturing typical of the nobility of the era. In this case, however, time would show that on this occasion the old empty promises had been spoken in deadly earnest.

Some clever soul in her service had apparently set up recruiting stations throughout the city, and these were quickly overwhelmed by volunteers as they streamed out from the square. One surviving enrollment list includes 72 names, and seems to have been collected at a single such station, which suggests that the total number of recruits numbered well into the hundreds. Considering that the retinue of a lord during this period of Pendorian history rarely exceeded two hundred soldiers, this was a tremendous show of support.

Ulric seems to have recovered from the shock of Meredain's defection within a day or so, as by the morning of January 5th when a traveler informed him of the events that had transpired at Marleons on the 2nd, he had already marshaled his personal retinue and apparently departed immediately. Though Ulric is traditionally painted as incapable and foolish by subsequent historians (particularly during Meredain's reign), he was known in his own lifetime as a canny and capable leader, and he had clearly understood that it was unlikely that a commander of Meredain's stature and character would have staged such a dramatic break with her liege unless she had rebellion in mind. He does, however, seem to have gravely misunderstood the extent of the threat. Assuming that she would be able to field only a few loyal supporters and her standing company of knights, Ulric seems to have relied on his own standing forces, the guards of the city, and the local chapter of the Knights of the Lion.

Chapter XII: The Turning of the Lions

Ulric's forces arrived at Marleons on the 9th, but when they attempted to invest the city they discovered that Meredain had rallied not only her household retinue and her new levies, but also the had heavy support from the local chapter of the Knights of the Lion and her own order, the Rangers of the Clarion call. The Rangers had ridden hard from Laria upon hearing of her declaration of a new kingdom of Pendor, and were among the first and most loyal of her supporters. Their support is unsurprising, given their long association with Meredain and her membership in their order. The defection of the Knights of the Lion seems somewhat surprising on first glance. After all, not only were they the traditional guardians of the Kingdom of Sarleon, but King Ulric himself belonged to their ranks. The commonly-held explanation of this event (and one of the early arguments advanced for the divinity of Meredain I) is that her famous "Plea in the Lion's Den" was so powerful that her charisma and force of will compelled even these tough-minded knights to convert on the spot to her cause. While it is difficult to provide a satisfactory non-miraculous explanation for the decision of the Marleons chapter house to throw in their lot with Meredain, a few facts are worth considering.

First, the Sarleon chapter house had, almost since the first days of Ulric's reign, held themselves as the guardians of the king, and therefore the superiors of their brothers in the "lesser houses." The Sarleon Lions busied themselves with the ceremonial duties associated with guarding the king, including feasting, hunting, tournaments and pageantry. Many of their number were drawn from the upper nobility, and were expected to be more capable at politics than strategy or war. Meanwhile, the other chapters were left to bear the brunt of patrolling the roads, forests and villages, keeping the peace, and suppressing banditry. They suffered heavily as a result, which may well be the second reason for their defection. While Lions in Sarleon feasted and hunted, their brothers in the hinterlands rode patrols in rain and snow and shed their blood to protect the merchants and common people. Membership records show that many of these "provincial" Knights of the Lion were recruited from the lower gentry, or even the commoners, and may have felt little kinship with their pampered and exalted "brothers" in Sarleon. Regardless of the reason, their defection was crucial, as it provided Meredain with the heavy cavalry she needed to effectively counter Ulric's knights.

Chapter XIII: The Battle of Marleons

Almost from the moment that Ulric's army arrived beneath the walls, they came under heavy fire. The clever machinists of Marleons had spent the days following Meredain's declaration of war enthusiastically building war machines, and Julia reports new fewer than three trebuchets occupied the central square, and five ballistae were arrayed along the walls. The hail of missiles took a heavy toll on Ulric's engineers, and eventually forced them back. Ulric seems at this point to have been expecting a siege of some duration, as his engineers apparently began construction of their own siege engines on the afternoon of the 9th. As the sun rose on the morning of the 10th, however, Ulric was shocked to see the portcullis of Marleon raised, and her infantry already forming up underneath the walls. Mindful of the defender's siege weapons and skill with the bow, and unwilling to send his men back into the killing grounds beneath the walls of the city, Ulric formed his army but kept them well back from the walls, giving Meredain time to marshal her forces carefully, with her heavy infantry in the center screened by crowssbowmen and archers, including members or the knightly orders of the Ebony Gauntlet, and flanked by heavy cavalry on the left and light cavalry on the right. By the third hour of daylight, Meredain had given the order to advance and her forces began to move away from the walls.

Ulric, never a particularly imaginative soldier, followed the traditional Sarleonian deployment pattern of cavalry to the front, infantry behind, and archers to the rear. The two armies met about a quarter mile from the walls, and action seems to have been precipitated when Ulric led a headlong charge of his Lions at the center of Meredain's formation. Meredain's archers, having been ordered ahead of time to retreat in the face of cavalry, fled back through specially-prepared lanes in the main body of infantry. By the time Uric's Lions had reached a full gallop, they found themselves charging down not on scattered missile troops, but on formed blocks of infantry, bristling with halberdiers and armored foot. To make matters worse for Ulric, Meredain had apparently anticipated that Ulric would lead the cavalry himself, and had no intention of allowing him to disengage from the infantry. Even as the archers were withdrawing, the cavalry on her flanks were already in motion. Her own lions wheeled out from the left and prepared to charge home into the flanks of Ulric's knights, already heavily engaged from the front. Meanwhile, horsearchers of the Clarion Call raced around from the right to screen the rear of the heavy cavalry, keeping Ulric's foot and archers at bay while the hammer of Meredain's Lions pounded Ulric's cavalry upon the anvil of her infantry.

Lion fought Lion in the fields before Marleons, and many fell on both sides. In the chaos, Ulric fell from his horse, badly wounded, and was nearly captured. The remaining knights in his retinue surrounded him and staged a fighting retreat from the field, leaving his infantry exposed to the mounted Rangers of the Clarion Call. Unable to effectively engage these armored horse archers, and poorly equipped to withstand prolonged missile fire, Ulric's halberdiers and footmen at arms suffered badly and were driven back with heavy losses, exposing the archers positioned behind them and disrupting their formation. Taking advantage of the chaos, the Rangers and remaining Knights of the Lion charged home into the undefended archers and cut them to pieces. King Ulric was too badly wounded to ride, and was therefore loaded into a wagon and, guarded by his knights, began what must have been a torturous journey for all concerned as his broken army fled back towards Sarleon.

Chapter XIV: The Death of a King

Meredain, never known for delay in following up on a victory, had her army marshaled and on the road even before the wounded were collected. Leaving the bulk of her forces to guard Marleons, she pushed forward as fast as she could at the head of a mounted column of Lions and Clarion Call Rangers. A picked infantry detachment followed behind, but Meredain seems to have been more interested in speed than in mass. By this point, Ulric's army was a broken mob, more interested in survival than defense, and entire companies laid down their arms and surrendered without a fight. By nightfall, Meredain had caught up with the rearguard of Ulric's knights, and a slow, bloody fight ensued throughout the night. At some point, it became clear to Meredain that the remaining Lions could not simply be swept aside, and an alternative strategy would be necessary if she wished to capture Ulric before he reached the safety of Sarleon's walls. She dispatched all but a token few of her Rangers of the Clarion Call under their grandmaster, Guy Levinar, to swing wide around the defending knights and ride straight for Sarleon until daybreak, then turn back and follow the road south toward the main body. The gamble paid off. By the time the sun rose, Guy had managed to get in between Sarleon and the knights escorting the wagon in which the king lay, and now it was his turn to stage a moving defense, for which his heavily-armored horsearchers were ideally suited. Attacked from both the front and the rear, Ulric's remaining Lions took refuge on a hilltop and prepared to defend their position to the last.

Meredain, expecting reinforcements of infantry from Marleons, was in no hurry to attack the surrounded force. Hopelessly encircled, Ulric's Lions could only watch throughout the day as the forces surrounding them grew. At the same time, Ulric's condition continued to deteriorate, until by late afternoon he lost consciousness. At this point, Hugh Depard, grandmaster of the Order of the Lion seems to have made the decision to surrender. It is difficult to see what other option he had. It must certainly be supposed that he knew the King's wounds to be mortal, and the defection of so many of his Knights to the upstart queen must also have been a telling blow to his morale, and that of his men. Ultimately, however, he was an experienced soldier who must have been thoroughly aware of the hopelessness of the situation. As the sun set, he and three of his knights rode down from the hilltop under a white flag of truce and surrendered, unconditionally, to Meredain personally.

The king, as it turned out, was beyond caring. He never regained consciousness, and died during the knight. Later chroniclers, such as Henrik of Bent, have attempted to argue that he was assassinated, either by Meredain herself, or by his own troops, but these arguments are unconvincing. Many witnesses testified to the grievous nature of the King's wounds, and given the state of medicine at the time, it is unsurprising that he succumbed to them. His personal physician, George of Yalibe, wrote in his memoirs, which survive to this day in the collection of the Imperial Library, that the king:

"...was pierced throu with manie and dyvers wounds, but most sore of all was a broken lanse which went most cruelly unto his belly, and came out again upon the far syde." [sic]

Given the standards of medicine at the time, it is virtually impossible that anyone could have survived such wounds, and it is almost certain that anyone seeing him would have realized it. An assassination would have been foolish, and unnecessary.

Chapter XV: The Rebirth of Pendor

With the death of King Ulric of Sarleon, the first stage of the crown wars had come to a close. Two thirds of Ulric's lords were dead or captured, his army broken, and without a clear heir there was little prospect of rallying the remaining loyalists. Additionally, Meredain's popularity among the people was such that it was unlikely that any alternative claimant would have been able to garner the necessary support to make a credible claim for the throne, even had such a one existed. Most of Ulric's surviving lords swore fealty to Meredain immediately, and the remaining holdouts eventually either came over to her or went voluntarily into exile in the surrounding kingdoms. Those who left gained, for the most part, only temporary escape, as Meredain would unleash a rapid string of conquests the following spring, swallowing up the successor kingdoms one by one until the Reunification of Pendor was declared late in 347.

On the 14th of January in 346, Meredain rode through the open gates of the city of Sarleon, if not to cheers, than at least without resistance. The city was left untouched, and the Guildmasters, Mayors and Headmen of the remaining cities in the kingdom for the most part made haste to declare their allegiance to the new ruler, and the conquest, such as it was, was completed without further bloodshed by mid-February.

The morning of the 23rd of February dawned bright, clear, and cold as Meredain walked to the cathedral to be crowned Grand Duchess of Sarleon. Her choice of titles was significant - she did not intend to be crowned queen of Sarleon, as she did not consider Sarleon a nation independent of Pendor. This distinction was certainly not lost on the rulers of the surrounding successor states. The following spring was to be among the bloodiest and most important in Pendorian history, but for now that was in the future. On that brisk day in February, the world marvelled at the spectacle as a young woman of uncertain birth walked to the dais in the great keep of Sarleon and stood before the Silver throne of Pendor. The world held its breath as they waited for her to sit, but instead she (in what was clearly a carefully-planned and choreographed exercise) had a simple wooden chair brought up and placed before the throne, whereupon she was seated, to thunderous applause. The implication was apparent to all present - she would not sit the Silver Throne except as the Queen of a unified Pendor. Even as those in attendance cheered, throughout the fragmented provinces of the old kingdom of Pendor frantic councils were held, as the usurper kings and queens laid their plans for the spring, and for war.