The Earldom of Gwedric was a small independent nation within the Viland Empire. Of course, the Viland Empire contained as many as ninety-five to a hundred independent nations at any given point, so that fact alone didn't make Gwedric particularly noteworthy. In fact, almost nothing made Gwedric noteworthy—and therein lay the Earldom's luck.
It was located in a small mountain valley that was somewhat annoying to travel to but not especially isolated. The Earldom contained no particularly valuable resources, but the land was fertile and the climate mild so the people rarely went hungry. And the Earl's family tended to produce mid-level army officers or civil servants—people who made themselves useful to the empire without ever becoming particularly distinguished.
That's how the Earldom, as small as it was, managed to survive as an independent nation for so long. Longer, even, than most other nations in the Empire. They were small, but self sufficient, lacked any valuables to entice invaders (especially considering how inconvenient it would be to send an army there), and generally avoided offending anyone important or powerful enough to retaliate. Against all odds, generation after generation, the Earldom of Gwedric was weak enough, unimportant enough, and lucky enough to avoid being conquered in any of the Empire's near constant civil wars.
But the Goddess of Fate is a tricky mistress, and no lucky streak can last forever.
Gwedric's luck finally ran out when the current Earl's son and heir was thrown from his horse during a hunting trip just a few months before his wedding.
If the grouse's nerve had held and it had remained hiding in the bushes for another few minutes until the horses had passed, then the hunt would have continued and perhaps Roger would have brought home a wild boar that night, inspiring a joyous feast.
But the grouse had panicked, and in its desperation to flee, it had spooked Basil the horse, causing him to throw his rider in his own panic.
If the stone had been a few feet to the left, Roger would have only had the wind knocked out of him when he landed, or perhaps a mild concussion. Perhaps he would have laughed off the concerns of his companions and chosen to ride home early, planning to continue the hunt another day.
But the stone was in just the right place to crack the young man's skull open, spilling his life's blood into the soil.
Tamsin Gwedric, Roger's younger sister and sole remaining heir to the Earldom, cursed the damned stone for its violence. She cursed the wicked grouse for its cowardice. And she cursed the cruel-hearted Goddess of Fate for abandoning her family at long last.
Tamsin's parents were in the middle of a similar act of abandonment.
The Earl and his wife—a dignified looking man with hair just graying at his temples, and an elegant woman with well-kept curls—argued as they packed a carriage.
"You're certain Erhard will take us in?" asked the Countess, attempting to stuff an oversized hatbox under the seat of the carriage.
"He told me I could come to him if I ever needed anything," said the Earl, sticking a cage containing a squawking chicken onto one of the seats.
"Yes, but that was before—" The Countess waved her arms as if to indicate the dark sky with the red glow on the horizon from the burning city, the faint sound of screams in the distance, and sharp smell of iron just threatening to make itself known.
"He owes me," said the Earl, darkly.
"My lord we must go," said the carriage driver, a man Tamsin thought might have been named Bertrand or Bertram. "If we delay any longer even the back ways may be blocked."
"Just a moment!" shouted the Earl. Finally, he turned to back to his daughter.
Tamsin was a small young woman, barely twenty years old and barely over five feet in height. She had inherited neither her mother's curls nor her father's dignity. Tamsin had dusty brown hair which was flat, if a bit frizzy at times, and freckled skin, and frightened hazel eyes. She was no great beauty and had no great talents. She was just... ordinary. Ordinary, ordinary, ordinary. As the Earldom had been for generations. As her life had been until Roger's untimely death.
And now she was being forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances which she could not possibly have been prepared for.
"Tamsin," said the Earl, putting a hand on his daughter's shoulder. He looked at her with eyes that were almost full of sympathy. Almost full of love.
"It's with a heavy heart that I abdicate my title to you now," said the Earl. "We would bring you with us, but someone must be here to answer the Duchess's grievance when she arrives. Imperial law demands it. But do not worry, my little mouse. I'm sure Duchess Jordaine is not so heartless that she's incapable of showing mercy to those so much weaker than herself. Farewell now."
The Earl gave Tamsin a hug which she didn't return. "Eduart, we must go!" shouted the Countess... well, now the Dowager Countess, from the carriage. "Hurry! We have no time!"
The Earl gave his daughter one final pat on the head and a sad smile, and with that he climbed into the carriage and the nervous carriage driver—Bertrand or Bertram or whatever his name was—spurred the horses on. Soon they had disappeared into the darkness.
Tamsin, now the Countess of Gwedric, walked back into the mansion in a daze. All around her servants and guards ran around in a panic, but she drifted along as if a ghost already. She made her way to the audience chamber where she sat down heavily on her father's throne. Well, really it was more of a large chair. But he had called it his throne.
The captain of the guard saluted her. She thought his name was probably Frieg. "Countess..." he said. The word sounded uncertain in his mouth.
"Yes?" said Tamsin.
"What should we do?" asked Captain Frieg. Tamsin felt sorry for him. He was an old man. He hadn't fought in a real battle in decades now. He had taken this post as a sort of retirement from the imperial army. He didn't deserve this. "They've broken through the city gates already," he said. "The mansion's gates won't last long. They weren't made to hold off an army. They're practically decorative!"
Tamsin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Throw open the gates," she said. "Throw open all the doors to the mansion."
"Do it now!" snapped Tamsin. "We surrender."
It took some time for her orders to reach the right ears and for her commands to be carried out. Tamsin wasn't sure quite how long. She felt almost as if she was floating off somewhere just behind her body and to the left a bit, like she was watching all these scenes unfold from the outside, disconnected from them. What a terrible tragedy, she thought mildly. Couldn't someone have helped this poor girl out before it got to this point? How could the gods allow something like this to happen?
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Duchess Alesia Jordaine threw open the doors of the audience chamber and strode into the room.
She wore no armor. Instead, she wore a simple white shirt and black trousers tucked into knee-high boots. The shirt was stained with blood the same color as her hair, which tumbled wildly down her back like a lion's mane. And she carried a broadsword in one hand.
Tamsin wasn't sure what expression she had expected to see on the Duchess's face. Wild glee, perhaps. Or mad rage. What she hadn't expected was this... resigned determination.
The Duchess lowered her sword and bowed, briefly. "Lady Tamsin, I presume," she said.
"Countess, now," said Tamsin. "My father abdicated his title."
"Just before you arrived," said Tamsin. "I apologize that we were unable to invite you to the coronation ceremony."
The Duchess's expression darkened. "That spineless coward," she spat. "He could have—"
"Please!" said Tamsin. She didn't want to hear her own thoughts echoed back to her like that... not from the Duchess.
"I apologize, Countess," said the Duchess, with another bow. "I would also like to apologize for not appearing before you in proper uniform, as would be fitting of your station. I seem to have lost my coat somewhere in town."
"That's quite alright," said Tamsin, vaguely.
More soldiers ran through the doorway, clearly in the Jordaine Duchy's uniform, but the Duchess waved them off. "Fall back," she said. "I wish to speak to the Countess alone."
The Duchess looked at Tamsin and Tamsin nodded. Tamsin didn't have many people to send away. Only Captain Frieg had remained by her side anyway. "Leave us," she told the old man. He looked about to protest, so Tamsin added. "Please."
Frieg backed down, although he didn't look too happy about it. He glared daggers at the Duchess while he made his way out of the room. Then, just before closing the doors behind him, he looked back at Tamsin one last time. His eyes were full of genuine sorrow.
Tamsin almost wished she'd taken the time to get to know the man better. While she'd had the chance.
Everyone else gone, Duchess Jordaine approached Tamsin's chair.
"We didn't want it to go this way," said Tamsin, although she knew that the Duchess knew. "If Roger had lived, he would have married you, as promised. Our nation's could have been joined together in peace. Instead of..."
"Imperial law states that a broken contract between noble families must be answered," said the Duchess, although surely she knew that Tamsin knew. "No matter why it was broken."
"I surrender my lands to you," said Tamsin. "And my title. You can have it all."
"And I thank you for it," said the Duchess. "But, my lady, imperial law states that the current title-holder must be held personally accountable for a broken contract."
Tamsin closed her eyes and tried to focus on breathing.
"If you so chose, I could take you to the imperial capital," the Duchess continued. "It would be a long, difficult, and unpleasant ride with only a dungeon cell awaiting you. You would receive a fair trial, eventually, but even after all that suffering, in the end you would be..."
"Executed," said Tamsin.
"Publically," said the Duchess. "Imperial law demands it." She raised the sword again. "My lady, I am truly sorry. But this is the only mercy I can offer you."
Tamsin had known this was coming. Her father had known it was coming when he had abdicated his title to her to save himself. Captain Frieg had known it was coming when Tamsin sent him away.
A quick, private death. To prevent further suffering. To save her dignity.
Tamsin half wished that the Duchess was the blood-crazed monster she was rumored to be. In some ways that might make this easier.
"I understand," said Tamsin.
When the Duchess took that final step forward, she was close enough that Tamsin could at last see her eyes. They were gray. Not a light blue that was almost gray, but true gray. Colorless.
Tamsin was thinking about how unusual and pretty those eyes were when the Duchess ran her through.
With her final thoughts, Tamsin cursed the rigid, lifeless imperial law for forcing the Duchess' hand. She cursed the Duchess for bowing to its demands. She cursed her coward of a father for throwing her on this sword. And she cursed all the gods who had presided over her life from the moment of her birth. But most of all, she cursed the Goddess of War, said to be the Duchess of Jordaine's patron, for having brought this terrible calamity upon her.
"Hey, don't blame me, honey," said a voice from right next to her ear. "None of this is my fault."