114. Northern Men, Northern Steel
Northern Men, Northern Steel
The fortunes of war had changed for Isarn. The Red Hawks had bitterly tried to defend their siege of Castle Grenwold, but constant harassment from Isarn’s forces had made it untenable. Supplies from Middanhal could no longer be expected to arrive; soon, the besiegers had felt they were beleaguered themselves and were forced to break camp, lifting the siege. As they began a march back towards Middanhal, the harassment continued, constantly costing lives among the Hawks. Under strict orders from Konstans not to engage in actual battle, the Hawks could do nothing but defend themselves in these skirmishes and hasten back towards the safety of Middanhal. As Drakevin’s Day arrived, all forces loyal to Vale had retreated inside the double walls of the capital.
This meant that at last, control of the North had returned to Isarn. The jarldom was no longer under threat of invasion, and all enemy forces had been driven from the lands of his allied landgraves. After a dark winter and long months that had portended defeat, the northerners sang songs of victory once more.
In the Isarn camp some fifty miles north of Middanhal, a row of prisoners was marching out. With shackles on their ankles, their progress was slow. All of them were Red Hawks taken captive during the last months of fighting. Being mercenaries, Isenhart had little respect for them; rather than allow them to be ransomed, they were being sent to the iron mines of southern Isarn. In this manner, they would be put to use in aiding the war; their labour would retrieve the ore that the Dwarven smiths of Silfrisarn refined and forged into Nordsteel armour to equip Isarn’s allies.
Eumund was overseeing the departure of the prisoners when his kinsman Athelgar hailed him. “Eumund,” the latter called out. “Your father summons you to council.”
“Again? I thought we had decided to leave Theodstan for now.” He turned to join Athelgar in walking towards the middle of the camp.
“From what I gather, this has nothing to do with Theodstan. Scouts returned with news.”
“What news?” asked Eumund.
“I was not told yet. I assume you will hear at the council. Some of the thanes have a card game going on. Join us after the council if you wish,” he suggested.
“Why not,” his cousin agreed.
They reached the jarl’s tent and split up. Eumund walked inside to find both his father, his uncle Athelstan, and his father’s cousin Athelbold waiting; the latter was reading a letter but looked up as Eumund arrived. They were seated on simple chairs, forming a half-circle inside the tent. “Finally,” Isenhart grumbled as his son took a seat. “Let us begin. I have been told that an army is amassing in Theodstan.”
“While he refuses to join us? So he must be planning to assault us,” Eumund argued.
“It could simply be a deterrent against the possibility of our attack,” Athelbold countered.
“Quiet,” Isenhart growled. “There is more. This is not Theodstan’s army. Although they march under no banner, our spies have discovered the army comes from the highlands.”
“Heohlond?” Athelstan frowned. “Does this mean King Brión is entering the war?”
“So it seems. The numbers are small. A thousand men at most,” Isenhart related.
“An advance guard, perhaps sent to reinforce the Hawks,” considered Athelstan, the jarl’s brother and his foremost commander. “If we had not been so swift to beat Vale’s forces back, these highlanders would have arrived undetected by us.”
“Perhaps it is not King Brión who sends this force,” Athelbold interjected. “Else they would be travelling under the mark of Clan Cameron, surely.”
“They could be from another clan,” Eumund pointed out. “That would explain why they hide their origin. They have not officially joined the war, but simply sent their warriors to Adalrik.”
“It makes sense that Vale would scramble to find new allies now that his mercenaries proved so unreliable,” Isenhart snorted. “The question is if they are simply marching through Theodstan, or if the latter is making common cause with our enemies.”
“That should be easy to determine,” Athelstan declared. “Jarl Theodoric refused to join us. If his levies march with this highlander army, we must assume we face an enemy to the east.”
Isenhart grabbed a cup standing on a small table. “Give me your advice on what to do next,” he commanded and took a swig of wine.
“We should attack the highlanders immediately before any more of them arrive. Scatter them and destroy the threat,” Athelstan stated.
“Agreed.” Athelbold, the jarl’s cousin, gave a nod.
“What afterwards? Middanhal is the prize,” Isenhart told them. “The longer we delay our siege, the more time we give Vale to shore up his defences.”
“It is too dangerous to attempt a siege if Theodstan has joined our enemy. Especially if another army from the highlands marches into Adalrik. We will be attacked from both sides,” Athelstan warned.
“A small force can besiege Cragstan and keep Jarl Theodoric enclosed. We need not take the city, merely prevent him from fighting,” Athelbold argued. “That will also allow us to bolster our provisions with what we can plunder from Theodstan.”
“What of the highlanders? If we detach troops to maintain a siege of Cragstan, they will be vulnerable to any relief army arriving from Heohlond,” Isenhart contemplated. “We will have to invade Heohlond afterwards.”
“I think we can do this swiftly,” his brother claimed. “If King Brión is behind this, we march to Cairn Donn. It will not take us long, and the city’s defences are surmountable. If Vale’s new ally is another clan, we force the king to respond. Given he would have lost his throne and head if not for my victories in the highlander war, we should find him more amenable than Theodstan has been.”
The jarl sat thoughtful for a moment. “Get the army ready. We march against Theodstan tomorrow.”
His commanders rose quickly. “It will be done,” Athelstan promised. He and Athelbold left Isenhart and the tent. “My sympathies once more, cousin,” he added, gesturing towards the letter in the other man’s hand.
“It is what it is, but thank you,” Athelbold muttered before they separated.
Whilst Athelstan went to issue orders, Athelbold went in search of his son. He found the latter sitting outside another tent along with several of Isenhart’s thanes. They sat on the ground with a folded cloak in the middle, acting as an improvised table. Stacks of copper petties and silver eagles lay on top, and the men were dealing cards while jesting and laughing. “Athelgar.”
The youth looked up and noticed his father. “What is it?”
“I must speak with you,” Athelbold told him, nodding for his son to follow him.
Athelgar gave his companions a chagrined look. “If you sorry lot of wretches look at my cards, I will have the jarl string you up,” he impressed upon them and received only laughter in return. Getting up, he walked over to join his father. “What is amiss?”
“Your mother is ill.” Athelbold waved the crumbled letter in his hand.
All ease vanished from Athelgar’s face. “Gravely?”
“The jarlinna would not write otherwise.”
“Are you leaving?”
Athelbold shook his head. “We expect battle soon, so my place is here. But you are her eldest child. It will comfort her to have you by her side.”
“I will leave immediately,” Athelgar declared. “Anything I should do?”
“Just provide your mother with comfort,” his father instructed. “And if the worst should happen,” he added, swallowing, “comfort your siblings. The youngest will not understand.”
“Of course. I shall write you when I am home,” the youth promised.
Athelbold placed a hand around his son’s neck, patting his shoulder with the other hand. “Good. Gods willing, I will be able to go home soon.”
“Until then, Father.”
Soon after, Athelbold watched his son ride out of camp with a thane as attendant, moving west towards Silfrisarn.
The Isarn army would have been heading out in any case, but preparations for the march were swiftly amended; instead of besieging Middanhal, Isarn would be seeking an open battle with the highlanders. In some ways, this made matters simpler; the main camp, strongly fortified and at a location unknown to the enemy, could remain occupied for the time being. There was no need to pack everything up and move it towards Middanhal. On the contrary, speed was of the essence to catch the highlander army unaware and before reinforcements might arrive.
Thus, instead of having the next days to gather everything and send it on wagons along the main road towards Middanhal, the majority of the army had to be ready to move out the next day. Furthermore, their path was directly east, crossing into forests and over hills rather than roads. A forced march in arduous terrain lay ahead, calling for provisions to be packed into sacks and anything else that could be carried; the wagon train with any other supplies would have to follow at its own pace on roads more lenient to wheels.
The changes in preparation were handled with speed and competence by the Isarn army. After more than a year of campaigning, they had become experienced soldiers. Leaders such as Athelstan, Eumund, and former men-at-arms from the Order had spent winter instilling discipline and routine through rigorous training, which had yielded results. The army of Isarn was becoming a formidable fighting force, equipped with the finest steel available in Adalrik, and the day after the jarl’s council, they marched east against Theodstan.