Chapter 2
The Heart of Notos

AN 1215 (AZ 1452) - Late Spring
Maximilion, Notos

The months following the conquest of Girondin was a mix of successes and failures for the Alliance. They would gain ground and lose it, advance and withdraw as the tides of battle demanded. For now, they could only score victories where the occupiers were at their weakest, but as the Alliance grew stronger, so too did their ability to stand up to the enemy.
Besides more and more native sons rallying to their banner, Rowland had gained two key allies that brought unique skills to the fight. One was a Kobalos wench named Urgill who claimed to be a princess of her people in the Darklands. She was led to believe that fighting in the cause of the Alliance would be rewarded by the Notians' aid to overthrow their oppressors. Such a thing would never be, but Rowland had no qualms about letting her believe whatever she liked while it remained convenient. And although Urgill's horde had failed to conquer the tiny village of Maranthe, she and her monsters still had a purpose to serve.
The other was Carpos, the Crown Prince of Zephyr himself, who dared to use the Alliance as a means to seize the throne from his parents. The opportunity to pit the occupiers against themselves was well worth the extra effort Rowland needed to stay ahead of the treacherous Prince's schemes.
Though a great chasm divided his actual abilities from what he thought of himself, the Prince and more more importantly his men had no small measure of talent and they had managed a nearly flawless takeover of Hebertos. This promising start was spoiled somewhat when the Prince failed to seize the port city of Iakobin even with the pirate Blackstone's aid. Though it had infuriated Rowland at the time, he became more sanguine about it over time. War like the tides has its ebb and flow and there was nothing to gain by obsessing over every little setback. Even if a battle is lost, a clever man can turn it to win the war.
On the surface, it appeared that the Alliance was in retreat. Girondin and Hebertos had been retaken without a fight, but Rowland knew they were still too weak to hold territory. He had gained something better instead. To bolster the defenses of the countryside, three cohorts had been dispatched from the capital. That left only a single cohort remaining in the largest and most important city in the nation. Rowland may have lost the two cities he gained, but in exchange, the capital had never been more vulnerable. The time was ripe to strike.
Rowland spent months planning his attack on Maximilion. He would use all his confederates in the elaborate strategy to claim the city. If he succeeded, the Alliance would be in control of the very heart of Notos and the occupiers would lose the base of their power. If he failed, it could easily mark the death of the rebellion. In spite of his deliberate and calculating nature, he loved to tempt fate. The stakes could not possibly be higher, nor could his anticipation be any greater.
Rowland had taken considerable pains to coordinate the many players in the attack. He devised an elaborate signal system and planted a trusted agent in each group to ensure the different roles were played at the right time. Even with all his safeguards, the success of the plan relied on the competence of the others.
Had he chosen to remain on the sidelines, the anxiety would have certainly drove him mad. To that end, he gave one of the most critical parts of the mission to himself. It would keep him occupied and place a significant share of the burden on his own shoulders.
An underground complex existed beneath Castle Notos that served as both catacombs and drainage for the city. An outlet existed near the foot of Mount Atreus that could lead into the castle grounds if navigated correctly. He had already delved into the tunnels with Simona while he was formulating his strategy and marked off the path he wanted to take. This time he followed the same course with two hundred of his best men.
The air was thick and muggy with the overpowering stench of death and filth. It would have been more than most men could bear, but Rowland had chosen his fighters well. They did not complain, the entire unit moving toward their destination in stealthy coordination.
In took them about an hour, maybe two--it was impossible to tell time underground--to reach the ladder that led up to the Aiolian Baths. Rowland picked a time when many men of the palace would be taking their morning bath. There was scarcely another time when a man would be more vulnerable, so they would be easy prey, but with so many of them there, it would be easy for some to get away and raise the alarm. Rowland and his men would have to work quickly.
He turned to Clodomer, one of his lieutenants, and said, "Leave none alive. Waste no time. We split up and go room to room, then clear the outer court and meet at the entrance. Are we clear?"
"Yessir," Clodomer replied.
"Good. Pass it on and let's get moving."
The word disseminated throughout the ranks as Rowland climbed up the ladder. He emerged in the tepidarium. Before the men there had the chance to react, Rowland shot one with a hand ballista and then unsheathed Durandal to cleave into another.
"We are under attack!" one of the men shouted. "We are under attack!"
Rowland cut down the man who was raising the alarm and any others within easy reach as he made his way out into the courtyard and toward the main entrance. He would see that none escaped that way while the others were busy clearing out the baths. There were a couple side entrances, for servants and the like, but Rowland could not be everywhere at once. Even if the alarm was raised in the palace proper, by now the others should be well into their own attacks. The palace would be thrown into chaos and the single cohort that remained to defend the city would be no match for them.
Only a handful of men made for the main entrance while Rowland held his ground. In a normal battle, he would charge at his prey, but here he could not afford to let any slip past him. With sword and body he barred the way. Five men together tried to rush at him at once, but what were five unarmed men to Durandal's blade?
Before long, the rest of Rowland's men were assembled at the entrance.
"Report," he said to Clodomer.
"Eighty-six dead, sir," Clodomer replied. "Sixty-five bathers and twenty-one servants."
"Did any get away?"
"Not that I know of, sir."
As if on cue, buccinae began to sound. Either someone escaped the baths or one the other groups triggered the alarm. No matter.
"Secure the gates," he told his men. "Split up into teams of forty. Let nothing in and nothing out. Go now."
The men let out a bark and split up as ordered. Rowland went with the group headed to the Horse Gate. While he said nothing was to come in or go out, the Dwerkh warlord Garm and his men were supposed to be coming in from the north through the circus with all their war engines. They would be the one exception, which was why he needed to be there to personally oversee their admission.
The palace guards were in disarray. Only a scattered few stood in their way. The gate itself was better defended, but not by much, scarcely even ten men. A couple archers up on the ramparts managed to stick a few of the men with him, but Rowland stormed the gatehouse to personally dispatch them.
From atop the wall, he shouted, "Close the gate! But don't bar it unless I say otherwise!"
Before they were killed, the guards manning the gate sabotaged the mechanism, forcing the rebels to close the gate by hand. It nearly took all the men there to close the heavy ironclad doors. Rowland was taking a calculated risk in the hope that Garm would arrive before any reinforcements from the garrison.
As they approached the Horse Gate, Rowland called down the Dwerkhar, "What ho, sons of the mountain!"
"Open the bleedin' gates or we'll take our iron elsewhere!" a voice called back.
If they were beset by the enemy, they would not have the leisure to be so acid-tongued. It was safe enough to let them in.
"Give 'em a push and drag your half-grown carcasses in here!" Rowland shouted. Then to his men below, he said, "Make way for our stout-hearted comrades!"
Rowland made his way back down to meet Garm when he entered. The Dwerkhar were a fierce race and to lead them, Garm was the fiercest. As a true leader should, he led from the front and was the first to pass through the gate.
"Is your axe thirsty yet, friend?" Rowland asked.
"Only a few o' my men got their blades bloody on the way here," Garm said sourly. "There's still blood to be had, I trus'."
"There may yet be," Rowland said. "I want engines mounted up on the walls, at least two ballistae per gate. I also want your Dwerkhar checking every inch of the walls and the grounds. Seal up the posterns, find any hidden passages. I mean to hold this ground."
"Aye, we'll see to it," Garm said.
"And remember the Zephyrians with the orange bands are the princeling's men," Rowland added. "I'd hate for you to cut any of 'em down by accident."
Garm cackled, "Heh, by accident, aye."
He had a particular hatred for Prince Carpos for being both a Xotikan halfbreed and the son of the man who drove his people from their homes. If the Prince or his men were to come to any grief, he would be the last person to mourn them.
Remembering his task, Garm told Rowland, "We'll seal 'er up good an' tight an' see that no rats get in."
"Good man," Rowland said. "I'll leave you to it."
Rowland stepped back to give the Dwerkhar wide berth to enter the palace grounds. He then went to his men at the gate and told them, "Once our friends here are all in, bar the gate and be ready for the Zephyrians."
"Aye, sir," the men replied.
He then went back up on the ramparts to get a better view, both of the city and of the palace grounds.
"Rowland," a woman's voice said.
By reflex, he started to raise his sword, but even disguised, he recognized Simona. Sometimes he could sense her coming and other times she got the better of him. Perhaps the times he sensed her coming in advance were only the times she allowed him to sense her presence. She was rather good at what she did, after all.
She had taken the form of a human dancer from some exotic foreign land, an olive-skinned beauty with shiny ebon curls. Of course, as a Xotika, she was by nature an exotic beauty, not that she could be safely seen in her true form most places.
"All went well, I trust," Rowland said, paying her no more than a brief glance.
"Yes," Simona replied. "We took the Lion's Gate and let in the Eastman's men."
The Eastman, or Akasame as he called himself, was another of Rowland's curious allies. He was some sort of warlord in his native land, banished and set adrift, only to find his way onto their shores. He and his men lived for battle and Rowland promised them a fight. Their task was to take the armory and prevent the legionaries from arming themselves.
"Did he do his part?" Rowland asked.
"As near as I can tell."
"And the princeling?"
"In the palace now."
The Zephyrians of course could not publicly admit that the Crown Prince was a would-be usurper and the only question was how far the knowledge of his treason was allowed to spread. They gambled that it would be kept under strictest secrecy, so if the Prince could bluff his way into the palace and offer a distraction, it would be a great benefit to the plan and that was exactly how things appeared to work out.
However, Rowland did not like the thought of the treacherous halfbreed being in the ancestral home of the kings of his land.
"We should make sure he isn't getting too comfortable," he said.
"You shouldn't go alone," Simona said. "He has five hundred men and may yet mean treachery."
No doubt he meant treachery, but would he dare play his hand now? Rowland doubted it. Simona worried too much.
"I'm not alone," he assured her. "I have you. Now let's go."