108. The Price of Bread
The Price of Bread
Seven men walked east in the shadow of the Weolcan Mountains. A young swordsman set the course, followed by two warriors with equal arms. Behind followed two archers with longbows of Hæthian make. A bard and a sergeant of the Order, too young that he should ever have been conscripted, brought up the rear. Conversation was sparse; each man had a haggard look in his eyes, only occasionally replaced by hunger. Every time they came across a small brook flowing down the mountainside, they drank greedily and filled every container at their disposal. Satiating their stomachs with water could only chase the hunger away temporarily, though, and famished expressions soon returned.
“Milord, we can’t keep this up,” Geberic spoke quietly, having taken a few extra paces to walk alongside Brand.
“I am aware.”
“Unless luck’s on our side and we come across game, we’ve got nothing to eat.”
“I am aware,” Brand repeated curtly.
“Of course, milord,” Geberic muttered.
They continued the march in silence for a while longer. Eventually, Brand glanced behind and was met by the resigned faces of his men. “This is the fastest way to our goal,” Brand explained in a low voice that only Geberic might hear. “And in this rocky terrain, it will be hard for any to pick up our tracks.”
“I never doubt you have good reason, milord,” the old man-at-arms claimed. “And I know the men, they’ll never complain. We all chose this. But,” he continued hesitantly, “a bow staff doesn’t complain either when it’s being pressed too hard. It just breaks, and then it’s of no use to anyone.”
Brand continued to stare ahead as he asked his question slowly. “Are you breaking, Geberic?”
“Never, milord,” he protested. “You tell me to go to Hel, even if it’s just to get rid of me, I’ll keep marching until I get there. But between you and me,” he added in a whisper, “I got my doubt about Glaukos. He looks tough, but he’s a real grouch when he doesn’t get enough sleep.”
Brand gave a weak smile. “Noted.”
Their march continued for another hour before Brand called another rest; as the men sat down, some more gracefully than others, their leader stared west at the sun slowly approaching the horizon. Hidden from his sight behind the towering Wyrmpeak was Middanhal; it had been more than a week since their escape. Patrols of Hawks had been scouring the area, but thanks to the mountainous terrain, their pursuers had no trail.
Turning his gaze north, Brand stared into the jarldom of Theodstan. It covered the eastern part of Adalrik, running along the entire border to Heohlond, touching the Weolcans in the south and the Alfskog in the north. While none would ever claim it to be fertile lands, it had pastures for grazing and forests.
Glancing at his men, Brand cleared his throat. “We move out,” he told them. Without looking back or waiting, he set into motion; his course was north rather than east. Exchanging looks, but never questioning their captain, the band followed him deeper into Theodstan.
The next days, the group walked north-east, reaching greener surroundings. Having run out of provisions, their progress was noticeably slowed; instead of constantly moving forward, they spent much of the day foraging for berries, mushrooms, or roots while Quentin and Nicholas did their best to hunt. Although both were expert marksmen, neither were experienced hunters. Sneaking up on game was never a skill they had needed before, and in the course of an entire day, they rarely managed more than a squirrel or occasional rabbit.
“I found these,” Matthew exclaimed happily, showing a handful of large mushrooms as the group made camp.
“Those are poisonous,” Geberic informed him flatly. Matthew let them fall to the ground where he stood. “What about you?” he enquired, nodding at Troy.
“I found some berries,” the bard began.
“Where are they?”
“Well, as I was about to pluck them, I saw a rabbit.”
“So? Did it fight you for the berries?”
“No, no,” Troy hastened to say, “but I started to imagine how a good rabbit stew might taste.”
“Hel strapped to a bell,” Geberic swore, “you ask a simple question and get his life’s tale. This isn’t a tavern, string peddler, did you get anything?”
“I gave a good chase, I really did,” Troy defended himself. “I almost had it, but it jumped down this hole, and I couldn’t reach it. I had chased it for so long, I couldn’t remember the way back to the berries.”
“It ran into its warren, not a hole,” Geberic told him brusquely. “Only a cobblestone boy would be dumb enough to think he could chase up a rabbit on foot.”
“They were blueberries, I think. Or raspberries, maybe,” Troy frowned. “I honestly don’t know how most berries look.”
“Shut up,” Geberic growled.
“Any berries this early would not be ripe in any case,” Brand inserted. “Let us not waste breath over it.” He sat on a fallen log, dividing up a handful of wild pea pods that Glaukos had brought back. The Hæthian sat with his back against a tree, dozing off; a sleeping man was not a hungry man, as he had told the others.
The final members of the band returned; triumphantly, Nicholas threw a small partridge onto the ground. “Feast on this, my friends,” he told them exuberantly.
“Nicholas, I could kiss you,” Geberic yelled as he picked up the bird and began to pluck its feathers.
“I’m spoken for, but let Quentin have it,” the archer grinned.
His hunting partner did not share in the merriment; instead, he walked over and sat down on the log next to Brand. “We’re not alone in this forest,” Quentin said quietly.
“Who did you meet?”
“I didn’t come close enough to find out. I just heard voices and made a hasty retreat. Could be poachers like us,” he considered. “Could be the local lord’s forest men. Could be Hawks looking for us.”
“Did they discover you?”
Quentin shook his head. “I can’t imagine they did.”
The archer looked at the bird in Geberic’s hands being plucked. “If we make a fire to roast that, someone might see.”
Brand gave a short nod. “Thankfully, eating it should give us the strength to keep a quick pace tomorrow. Rest, Quentin,” he told him.
“Fat chance I’ll sleep tonight,” the other man muttered. Yet despite his misgivings, with his share of the partridge in his stomach, Quentin snored peacefully throughout the night.
As declared, Brand kept the pace quick the next day with few breaks and only an hour spent before nightfall to forage; the result of their search for food reflected this. Being so early in spring, the yields of the forest had not had time to ripen yet. Their stomachs complained, but every man kept his mouth shut on the topic of food, and a few songs by Troy provided a diversion from their predicament.
“They’re following us,” Quentin related to Brand, sitting next to him; the men were arranged in a circle, listening to Troy as night fell and their meagre rations were being consumed. “It’s not a coincidence.”
“Any idea about their number or identity?”
The archer shook his head. “Hard to tell their numbers. I heard several voices, so at least three, but they might be up towards ten, I couldn’t say. I’d guess around five or so. As for who they are…”
Brand frowned. “Yes?”
“I saw what looked like gold and blue.”
Brand stared at him. “Are you certain?”
“Bloody Hel,” Geberic exclaimed, making Troy lose his grip; disharmonious tones struck out from his lute. “Are you saying the prince sent kingthanes on our trail?”
“Looks like it,” Quentin admitted.
The mood grew sombre. “That’s not good,” Nicholas finally pointed out.
“Kingthanes, Hawks, I care not,” Glaukos declared. “They bleed like any other man.”
“That’s sort of it,” Geberic countered. “Kingthanes are really good at making others bleed.”
“Sir, can we escape them?” asked Matthew. All eyes turned towards Brand.
The former knight smiled ruefully at his sergeant. “You need not worry, boy. You should all rest.”
“Nobody is expecting me to fight, right?” Troy asked concerned. Quentin rolled his eyes.
“Nothing will happen tonight. Rest,” Brand reiterated. “I will take first watch.” The men murmured but acquiesced, lying down to find what comfort they might on the forest floor.
As for Brand, he stood at the edge of their small circle, keeping eyes on the dark forest surrounding them. Geberic joined him. “A word, milord?” he asked quietly.
“Go to sleep.”
“Glaukos is handy with a blade, and the archers are sharp,” Geberic stated, ignoring the command. “Fighting this close in a forest, arrows aren’t that useful, though. The bard is obviously not much to rely on, nor the boy. As for me, I’ll fight, but I’m no match for a kingthane.”
“I am aware, Geberic.”
“I’m not sure we stand a chance against five kingthanes or more, but some of us can buy time. Even if it’s just Glaukos and me,” Geberic suggested. “He’ll do it, you know the mad bastard won’t back down. We can distract the kingthanes, lead them on a merry chase. Or wound them badly enough that they can’t pursue you further. Give you time to escape into the mountains, maybe.” He nodded towards the south.
“Nobody is sacrificing themselves, Geberic.” Brand had been staring into the forest, but he finally turned to look at his man-at-arms. “Trust me.”
“Always, milord.” The words came without hesitation, but Geberic’s face remained clouded with doubt as he lay down to rest.
At dawn, the group woke. A few birds were chirping in greeting, making the archers prepare arrows in case they spotted a tasty target. Breaking camp was done quickly as they had barely any belongings to gather. All turned expectantly to Brand, waiting for the course to be set.
“We have one advantage over the men pursuing us,” he told his followers. “As they are following our trail, we know exactly where they will be.”
“An ambush?” asked Glaukos, resting his left hand casually on his sword hilt.
Brand nodded. “If it comes to fighting, yes.”
“How do you mean?” frowned Geberic.
“These men are sworn to protect Sigvard’s blood. Their very oath prevents them from harming me. I believe I can dissuade them from fighting us,” Brand explained.
His men exchanged questioning glances. “What if you can’t, sir?” asked Matthew.
“Then we fight.”
“After giving away the advantage of surprise?” exclaimed Geberic.
“That’s pretty much our only advantage,” Quentin muttered.
“I have faith in you,” Brand smiled. “Should all odds be against us, console yourselves with knowing that I am the only outlaw here. Should I surrender myself, the rest of you are free to leave.”
“That’s hardly an option either,” Geberic protested.
“My lord,” Glaukos spoke brusquely, “I did not come all this way merely to watch you be dragged back to Middanhal.”
“The decision is mine,” Brand declared.
“We shouldn’t give them warning,” Quentin argued. “We should begin with me and Nicholas sending an arrow in the first two of them, even the odds.” The others assented to this.
Brand raised his hand to silence the discussion. “I understand your reservations, but these are not mercenaries or hired brutes. They are kingthanes, men of honour who have become trapped by their oath to an unworthy master. Their captain died to save me from death, and I hope his men will remember this.” He took a deep breath. “I owe the good captain that I at least try to spare the lives of his men before we slaughter them in ambush.”
“Honour gets a lot of men killed these days,” Geberic muttered.
“Enough,” Brand declared sternly. “We must assume they will reach us soon. We need to take positions.”
Seven kingthanes were making their way through the forest. Their mood was easy with occasional mirth expressed; heavily armoured and exceedingly skilled, they had little cause to fear anything that might be encountered in these woods. Their blue surcoats with a golden dragon upon it, an emblem recognised throughout the land, was another sign that they were not to be trifled with.
Several of them were laughing at a jest when their leader stopped dead in his tracks. Ahead of him stood a tall, pale man, nearly young enough to be called a youth if not for the weary expression upon his face; his clothing was common and dirty after sleeping on the ground for days, and he had merely a leather tunic to protect his body in a fight. The only thing of note was the sword hanging by his belt that held an emerald as its pommel jewel. “My lord kingthanes,” Brand greeted the speechless warriors. “You come searching for me. Before you draw weapons, you should know that you are surrounded by my men. We may resolve this peacefully, but if you force my hand, I will give the command to see you all slain.”
Hiding behind the surrounding trees, his small band held their weapons ready. Most of them sweat already from anxiety, and Geberic held a steadying hand on Matthew’s shoulder; only Glaukos wore a grim expression, ready for battle. Nicholas and Quentin both pulled their bowstrings back, their arms trembling from the effort. Regardless of how each man felt, surprise flooded their faces by seeing the kingthanes kneel before Brand, all as one. “My lord,” spoke their leader, “it is true we have come seeking you, but not to draw arms against you.”
“You have come to kneel,” Brand stated simply, his expression blank.
“I am Alaric,” continued the kingthane. “My brethren and I believe as our captain did that there is but one atheling left in all of Adalmearc, and our oath compelled us to seek you out. We have come to renew that oath, swearing fealty to the only one worthy of such vows.”
“Careful,” Geberic could not help but yell out, giving away his position. “It could be a trap!”
Disregarding the warning, Brand stepped forward to approach the kneeling kingthane and stretched out his hand. Alaric took hold of it with his own hand, pressing both to his forehead. “I will to my lord be true and faithful. Your life is my life, your blood is my blood. All my days I shall serve my lord until death may find me,” Alaric proclaimed. He hesitated for the briefest of moments before continuing. “By eagle’s flight from raven’s cry, through falcon’s fall till dragon’s rise, this oath I swear.” From the trees, Brand’s men stumbled forward, confounded and unable to look away.
His expression still indeterminate, Brand gazed down upon the kneeling thane. “By my table you shall be seated,” he swore. “In life, you shall know reward. In death, you shall know honour. All my days, I will hold this to be true.”
Alaric kissed the hand of his master and rose. “My brothers would swear the same oath,” he told Brand, stepping aside. One by one, the words were repeated by each of the kingthanes. As they were all done and no longer kneeling, they surrounded their new lord, exchanging nods. “We stand ready to follow you, my lord,” Alaric declared.
“Good,” Brand replied. He turned to look east. “Heohlond awaits.” The small group, now double in number, set into motion.
The increase of people upset the marching order that hitherto had existed, further troubled by the rough path they took through the forest. The kingthanes did their best to keep close to Brand, though none could displace Glaukos, who was ever at his leader’s side. Eventually, the kingthanes settled for spreading out along the small column.
“Milord,” Alaric asked, “may I enquire as to our destination?”
“Does it matter?” Geberic questioned him sharply.
“I am of most use when I know the days ahead,” the kingthane countered.
“We are going as far east as the highlands will allow us,” Brand replied.
“Very good, milord,” Alaric responded. A moment later. “What awaits us in the highlands? Friends or enemies?”
“My mother’s clan.”
“Our good captain is son of Deirdre of Clan Lachlann,” Geberic remarked loudly.
“In flight from father’s lands, our band of heroes sought mother’s kin,” Troy recited. “Needs work,” he admitted.
A few of the kingthanes complimented him nonetheless, making Geberic grumble; he was eventually forced back in the column, bringing up the rear with Matthew. “Keep a sharp eye on them, lad,” he muttered. “Nothing but trouble.”
“They brought us food,” Matthew countered, chewing on half a loaf of bread and smiling as crumbs dotted his face.
“When Hel comes, she’s in a beautiful dress,” Geberic mumbled.
“Never you mind.”
“Why are you so bothered by them?” the boy asked. “If any Hawks try to find us, we got seven kingthanes with us! They’ll chop them to pieces.”
“There are a lot more Hawks fighting for Vale than there are thanes on our side,” Geberic argued, picking a few berries from a bush as they passed it. He put them in his mouth and chewed them with a sour face.
“Seven kingthanes are better than none,” Matthew countered.
Geberic gave a sigh, spitting out the unripe berries. “It’s not that simple, boy. These kingthanes may have done us a disservice.”
“How so?” frowned Matthew.
“You heard the oath they swore Lord Adalbrand, right?”
“Of course. What about it?”
“The thane’s oath,” Geberic explained. “I swore it myself to Jarl Theodoric many years ago. But that last part, all that about eagles and ravens and other birds,” he continued haltingly.
“Yes, I didn’t understand that,” Matthew admitted.
“Me neither, but it’s not part of the thane’s oath. It’s something only the kingthanes swear when pledging themselves to the service of the king,” Geberic elaborated. The boy by his side digested his words silently. “These kingthanes didn’t just join us, they proclaimed Lord Adalbrand their choice of atheling for the throne. We’re not mere outlaws anymore, boy, we’re rebels against the Crown. To Vale and his ilk, we’re usurpers. Any chance of leniency is gone now. Enjoy that food, lad, you’ve paid more for it than you know.”
Matthew stared at the blue backs of the kingthanes, chewing on the last pieces of his bread.