18. Ember and Ash
Ember and Ash
Two days after the jarl of Isarn’s feast, the Order army at Lake Myr was nearly ready for departure. Troops, weapons, and supplies had arrived from all over Adalrik as well as Ealond to the west, and the more seasoned among the veterans and the men-at-arms had been drilling the newly conscripted soldiers. Nicholas from Tothmor was in a different situation being an archer. While any peasant or man off the street could be given a spear and a shield and taught to stand in formation, archers had usually learned the art before being hired by the Order. The close-combat soldiers needed to learn to fight as a unit and thus required extensive drilling together, the archers simply needed to be able to shoot their arrows fast enough to keep up the volleys. They had also been given short swords and thick, woollen gambesons in case they ever came into close combat, but they had not been ordered to practice with them.
Therefore, Nicholas and the other archers trained on their own, according to their own desires. A knight was assigned to command them, naturally, but since commanding archers was considered the least honourable position on the field, he had shown very little interest in overseeing their practice or otherwise issuing orders.
Thus left to his own devices, Nicholas had sought company with a group of other longbowmen, all from Hæthiod like himself. They had spent their mornings and afternoons outside of camp on the nearby fields, practising their craft against trees and fence posts or holding competitions to see who the better archer was. “Seven arrows before the first fell,” Nicholas smiled to one of the others. “I’d like to see you do better, Tom.”
“And you shall,” answered Tom, who was as tall and burly as his name was short. “I’ll show you city folk what a real archer can do,” he promised. Taking out eight arrows, he stuck them into the ground. He pulled his bowstring back and forth a few times, checking the tensile strength. Then he swiftly shot the arrows one after the other high into the air. Before the first touched ground again, the remaining had all been shot. “And there you have it,” Tom smiled. “Should have been me at that tournament, but I didn’t have the silver to pay for competing.”
“Not bad,” Nicholas admitted. “Though if you had shot with that kind of loose aim at the Temple square, you’d have killed as many people as you sent off arrows.”
“Did you really get robbed afterwards?” asked a third archer, sitting nearby to observe the competition.
“Clobbered me right in the head,” Nicholas confirmed, touching the spot on the back of his head.
“Damn shame about losing that figurine,” Tom said.
“Not to mention my silver,” Nicholas said longingly. “Though not all of it. Never put all your salt in one jar as my father told me.”
“You want to try again?” Tom said grinning, nodding towards the field where their arrows lay scattered.
“What’s the point of this game,” said the third archer sourly. “We aren’t going to shoot more than six arrows in the course of sixty breaths. Six arrows in the blink of an eye is useless to do.”
“The point, Quentin,” Tom said patiently, “is to show these city-bred folks that you can’t beat a farm-born in archery.”
While Tom laughed and Quentin shook his head, Nicholas turned his eyes towards the north. Lake Myr lay by the Kingsroad on its way south from Middanhal before it made a sharp bent east towards Inghold in the province of Ingmond. Coming down that same road was a band of riders riding hard, making the dust of the road swirl around them. With his sharp eyes, Nicholas could see the man in front wearing black, but there were no house colours on any of their cloaks or surcoats. The other archers followed Nicholas’ gaze, narrowing their eyes to see.
“What’s the matter?” asked Tom.
“It’s nothing, just messengers probably,” Quentin brushed it off.
“Messengers don’t ride in a group like that,” argued Tom.
“Let’s get our arrows,” Nicholas said, breaking away from the sight. “Get back to camp.” In the distance, the riders approached the Order camp; had the archers been closer, they might have spotted that the rider in front had only four fingers on his left hand.
The Order encampment at Lake Myr was spread out over a large area since it was not camped in hostile territory. Thus, the tents were allowed to stand further apart, no trenches had been dug and no stockade raised, and the men were not required to wear their mail shirts at all times. There were hundreds of large tents raised to house the soldiers, ten of them living together, while there were a couple of smaller tents for the knights and their squires or sergeants. Considering only two lived in them, however, these smaller tents seemed far more spacious.
In the western part of the camp stood Sir Richard of Alwood’s tent, whereas Sir Athelstan of Isarn’s was in the eastern part. This was an old rule that the leaders of an army should not sleep too closely to each other in case the camp was attacked at night and the commanders were targeted. This also meant both parts of the camp had a commander nearby to take charge in the event of such a cowardly attack.
Athelstan was pacing in his tent, occasionally stopping to look out before he resumed walking back and forth. When Brand walked in, the knight quickly turned to face him. “So?” asked Athelstan a little impatiently.
“No sign,” Brand shook his head. “But perhaps it is only a slight delay. They could be here by eventide.”
“Perhaps,” Athelstan said doubtfully. “Still, we should have heard word at least.”
“If not tonight, I am sure the last regiments will be here tomorrow,” Brand told him.
“I suppose,” Athelstan said, still pacing a bit.
“You seem disturbed,” Brand said frowning. “Is there any reason for concern?”
“No, no,” Athelstan assured him. “But we will not delay further. If we break camp now, we will have some hours of daylight.”
“Break camp?” Brand said bewildered. “It will be a few hours at most.”
“I am aware. Tell Sir Richard,” Athelstan commanded and then changed his mind. “No, I will, he can be stubborn. Spread the word to the men. I want us ready to march at soon as it is possible.”
“As you say,” Brand replied, confused but obedient.
Having made his decision, Athelstan marched out of the tent and across the camp. Before he reached Richard, however, his attention was caught by a small group of riders entering. They did not wear the surcoat of the Order, and as they approached, Athelstan could recognise the rider in front. “My lord jarl,” Athelstan called out to Theodoric. “I did not expect to see you here.”
“I have business with Sir Richard,” said the jarl curtly.
“Of course,” Athelstan nodded. “Have you come from Middanhal?” he quickly asked before Theodoric could ride on.
“I have,” Theodoric answered, not elaborating.
“How long ago did you leave? You must have ridden hard by the looks of your horses.”
“Some days ago,” Theodoric replied shortly. “Now I must be away,” he added, and Athelstan silently stepped back, gesturing with his hand for the jarl to continue. As soon as Theodoric and his thanes rode past him, Athelstan turned on his heel and walked away with quick steps.
Returning to his tent, Athelstan found Brand had begun to pack his belongings. His squire cast him a curious glance seeing him return so soon but did not speak; the knight in turn frowned in thought. “I just saw the jarl of Theodstan here,” Athelstan spoke before his voice faltered.
“Odd. I wonder what would bring him here,” Brand said absentmindedly, his attention on his possessions.
“Strange he is not in Middanhal for my brother’s feast,” Athelstan continued. “He must have left just prior.”
“I suppose,” Brand answered without turning around.
“Going to see Sir Richard… what could he have to speak with Richard about?” Athelstan asked.
“Richard is his vassal, correct?” Brand said, still not looking behind. “Perhaps some internal matter.”
“Perhaps,” Athelstan said, his expression growing dismayed. “But I think not. I waited too long, it seems.”
His last words made Brand finally turn around. “Sir Athelstan, is something the matter?” he asked in a hesitant voice as he saw the expression upon his lord’s face.
“Brand,” Athelstan said slowly, “what do the men think of me?”
“All know you are a great commander,” Brand assured him. “They are confident knowing you lead them.”
“And what do they think of Sir Richard?”
“Well, he is greatly esteemed by them all. His jovial and generous nature, not to mention being champion twice has won the admirations of them all,” Brand elaborated.
“So they might choose him over me,” Athelstan mumbled, barely audible.
“I beg your pardon, my lord?” Brand said a little confused.
Athelstan stood indecisive for a moment, turning his eyes in every direction. “Saddle my horse,” he finally said. “I have to ride out.”
“Now? While we are to break camp?” Brand asked.
“Yes, now,” Athelstan said sharply.
“Of course, my lord,” Brand replied. “Should I accompany you?”
This question made Athelstan give Brand a hard look before his features softened. “Yes. Yes, I think that is best. Saddle your own horse, I will saddle mine. It will be faster that way.”
The knight and squire both left the tent and fetched their horses. Shortly after, as the longbowmen from Hæthiod were returning to camp, they were met by two riders who continued past them, riding north. The archers stopped and gazed after the two mounted men, their sharp eyes recognising the knight in front, and they exchanged questioning glances before continuing into camp.
Meanwhile, Theodoric had reached Richard’s tent and entered it alone. “Theodoric,” the knight exclaimed. “You are an unexpected sight.”
“I can imagine,” the jarl replied and glanced at Richard’s sergeant. “Can we speak privately?”
Richard nodded to his sergeant, who left the tent. “Why so secretive?”
“I will be quick since Athelstan spotted me entering. I think his brother is planning a revolt and right now has Middanhal in his grasp,” Theodoric said swiftly, leaving Richard overwhelmed.
“Hold steady, a revolt? As in seizing the city and the throne?”
The jarl nodded. “He was bringing soldiers into the city under guise leading up to his feast before he gathered all the nobles at his house and made his move.”
“But you escaped?” the knight remarked questioning.
“I fled the city before his feast, yes.”
“So you left before any of this happened? Is this all mere guesswork?” Richard asked incredulously.
“It is careful consideration of the facts,” Theodoric claimed.
“That seems like a stretch,” Richard argued. “A jarl in open revolt against the Crown and the Order? His own brother is leading this army!”
“Precisely why it is brilliant,” Theodoric hastened to point out. “While one brother ensures that all standing forces leave the realm, the other takes the noblemen prisoner, and then there are none left to resist them.”
“I am not quite convinced,” Richard said with a voice full of doubt. “If they had waited just a week, this army would be deep in Hæthiod. Would the jarl really commit such a rash act?”
“Solstice was over,” Theodoric argued. “Only the prince’s burial kept the noblemen in the city. Many of them would be leaving to prepare for the harvest on their estates. They had to act swiftly to seize this opportunity, and they did.”
“You guess,” Richard corrected him. “You guess that they acted.”
“Richard, the danger is too real to ignore. The prince is dead, Isenhart was thwarted at the Adalthing, but he sees a new opportunity with the throne vacant. Tell me, is this not exactly the kind of risk that Isenhart would take in order to gain his desires?”
The short knight stretched his head back and forth in doubt, wavering. “Why are you here, Theodoric? Why are you telling me this?”
“Because,” Theodoric said patiently, “this army alone may threaten his plans. You must seize command from Athelstan before he can lead it away. You must turn back and march straight at Middanhal.”
“You ask a great deal,” Richard said slowly. “Usurp command, march on the capital, and deny these forces to the lord marshal in Hæthiod. You would make me a traitor thrice over, Theodoric.”
“Not if I am right,” the jarl insisted. “Then you are the saviour of the realm.”
“And if you are wrong? They will build a scaffold for me at the Temple square.”
“Richard,” Theodoric said quietly, “I am your oldest friend. I will walk up that scaffold with you if it comes to that. But I am not wrong.”
The knight looked at his jarl and took a deep breath. “Very well,” he said, exhaling. “No reason to waste more time.”
“With me,” Richard commanded his sergeant and Theodoric’s thanes as he left his tent and crossed the camp with swift steps. Passing through, they saw soldiers in the early steps of breaking camp. “Who told you to pack up?” Richard asked.
“Sir Athelstan’s squire,” said the soldier and resumed dismantling his tent.
“He is in a hurry to have this army move out,” Theodoric pointed out, to which Richard merely grunted, and they continued until they stood before Athelstan’s tent.
“Sir Athelstan,” Richard yelled as they approached to enter it. “A charge of treason has been brought before you, and it is –” Richard did not finish as they walked inside and found the tent empty. The knight quickly turned towards Theodoric’s sergeant and thanes. “Do you know Athelstan’s face?” he asked them, to which they nodded. “Search the camp, find him, and bring him to me.”
“He is gone,” Theodoric said even as his men dispersed to find Athelstan. “He saw me entering camp, he must have guessed why I was here. He will have left already.”
“Maybe,” Richard said, going outside the tent and looking around the camp. “In any case, we are in a hurry. We break camp and march through the night. Less time we give them to prepare, the better. Run to the other side, spread the word we are to be ready to march as soon as we can,” he told his sergeant, who hastened away to carry out his orders.
North of Lake Myr, two men were riding away from the camp. Once they had put some distance between themselves and the camp, the rider in front allowed the pace to lessen to a slower trot.
“Sir Athelstan,” said Brand, who was riding behind, “I do not doubt you have good cause for this, but may I ask what it is?”
“I will explain in due time,” the knight said shortly, looking back at the road behind them.
“Will you also explain why you constantly check for pursuers?” Brand asked sharply.
“What?” Athelstan said absentmindedly.
“Athelstan!” Brand exclaimed and halted his horse, forcing Athelstan to do the same. “A short while ago, you were urging that we march to Hæthiod as soon as possible. Now we are riding north.”
“This was not how I intended it,” Athelstan mumbled. “I did mean for us to join the war east.”
“Then why are we not?” asked Brand in the same sharp tone.
“My brother,” Athelstan began to explain. “He has taken Middanhal. He is going to set right what has gone wrong in this land.”
At this declaration, Brand’s expression turned horrid. “He has done what? Taken over the city?”
“Yes,” Athelstan nodded. “It was necessary. Adalmearc is falling to pieces, Brand. The Order is as well.”
“I do not believe this,” Brand shook his head. “I do not believe what I am hearing.”
“It is necessary,” Athelstan reiterated. “The last of the princes of Adal is dead. Murdered on his way to Valcaster, no less. Would you trust the jarl Vale not to seize power? To stand aside while the throne is empty?”
“It is not Jarl Vale who has seized the city,” Brand said coldly.
“A necessity,” Athelstan claimed. “Brand, you have not seen what I have seen. We are threatened by enemies abroad, invaded already! And more on the way.”
“Then we will fight them!” Brand proclaimed. “Like the Order has always done.”
“But the Order is weak,” Athelstan said. “Half the realms are not contributing, and the other half are stretching our forces thin. If you had been in Heohlond like your father was, you would understand!”
“Pray tell,” Brand said with the same ice as before in his tone, “how would Heohlond change my mind? It is a name I have heard so often along with my father’s, yet none will ever speak more of it!”
“Because it is a disgrace!” Athelstan yelled. “It was a massacre on both sides. Why do you think your mother’s family is gone? None showed mercy, neither they nor us. And the old king, mad in his grief, encouraged it. More blood in revenge for his son,” the knight said in disgust.
“Were you not a commander? Did responsibility not fall upon your shoulders?” Brand said accusingly.
“It did, and I tried,” Athelstan claimed, “I tried. In the end I returned to Middanhal, I pleaded with the king to negotiate peace rather than continue scorching the land. What was his response? He sent me to Alcázar for seven years,” it came bitterly from the knight.
“And my father?” asked Brand.
“When I failed, your father took matters into his own hands,” Athelstan told Brand. “He tried to make the knights refuse fighting, a mutiny. It ended badly, swords were drawn, and he died. Killed by none other than Roderic, who as a reward was made knight marshal.”
Blood drained from Brand’s face, and for a moment they were both silent. Finally, the squire broke the silence. “I am not my father. I am not a traitor, and I uphold my oath. I will have no part in this.”
“But think,” Athelstan said quickly, “think what we could do! The son of Arngrim would never be trusted by the Order’s current marshals, but you will be my first lieutenant. I will become lord marshal, and together we will fight the invasion in Hæthiod. Together, we will make the Order strong!”
“So that is your aim,” Brand said calculated, “your brother the king and you the lord marshal. For this you would tear the realm apart at a time when all its strength is needed to oppose a foreign enemy!”
“All the more reason I must assume command. You trust Sir Reynold to win this campaign?” asked Athelstan rhetorically. “He publicly supported the ‘King of Grief’,” Athelstan spoke, pronouncing the ekename with disdain, “when he told us to raze the homes of the clansmen. He is not the man to lead us in war.”
“But you are? You, who would break your word, yet expect others to show you loyalty.”
“It is the only way. Brand, you have been my companion for seven years, you are like a brother to me. I urge you, stand by my side, come to Middanhal with me!”
“Like a brother,” Brand said, his voice growing disheartened. “But will your true brother think the same way? Will the jarl once he is king not see me as a threat? Will he not hate the athelings of Sigvard, us who are dragonborn?”
“I will protect you,” Athelstan promised. “Stand by me now, and I will always stand by you.”
“Will you? You have already chosen your brother over the Order. When he asks you to make this choice again, will you choose differently?”
“That will not happen,” Athelstan insisted. “You are the same as my blood to me.”
“And yet not your blood,” Brand replied, “and blood is the very heart of the matter. Yours has given you wealth, position, it has made your brother reach for the crown. But mine?” Brand asked. “Mine gives me enemies. Because of it I stand taller,” Brand continued, “and thus I am an easier target. For this sake, my honour must always be untarnished.”
“This is not true,” Athelstan shook his head, but Brand continued undeterred.
“You make this choice because you were born to a house of wealth and power, because you dare to reach for more. But my every step, especially since my father died in an ignominious way, has balanced upon a knife edge,” Brand said. “I have spent my life in anticipation of proving myself, treading my own path. And you ask me to throw this away?”
“Do you not see,” Athelstan urged him, “I offer you all this! I offer you everything!”
“You offer me to forsake my honour, forsake the Order. Do you not see,” Brand countered, “without the Order I am nothing! I have nothing! I will be a traitor at your brother’s court, his tool to discard, and a thorn that will eventually displease him.”
It was with hesitation that Athelstan finally spoke again. “I cannot waste further time on this. Choose now.”
“I choose my honour,” Brand said, blinking as his eyes became disturbed. “I choose a path of my own volition rather than depend on the mercy of others.”
“So be it,” Athelstan said quietly. “When we meet again, I hope it will be under better terms.” With those parting words, the knight spurred his horse on. Brand lingered, watching Athelstan rapidly put distance between them; looking away, he turned his horse and slowly rode back towards the camp.
Continuing up the Kingsroad, Athelstan soon spotted regiments of soldiers marching his way. He halted his horse, straining his eyes to see their colours. It took a moment, but he could finally determine it was not a white star on a black background; they were black swords intertwined with red. Moreover, as they came closer, Athelstan easily recognised the man riding in front. He rode forward and hailed the commander of the regiments.
“Eumund,” he called out. His nephew spotted him and rode out to the side while beckoning the soldiers to continue the march. They did so in silent obedience though they looked worn and haggard; experienced eyes could guess that they had suffered a forced march through the night with little rest.
“Uncle!” Eumund exclaimed as he reached him. “What a surprise, but a pleasant one. I did wrestle with how to best get you out of the camp.”
“You are bringing our own men?” Athelstan asked. “What happened to the last regiments in Middanhal?”
“They never departed. Things did not go as intended in the capital,” Eumund said with a mixture of bitterness and embarrassment.
“What went wrong?”
“Too many things,” Eumund said, shaking his head. “We could not take the Citadel with its extra defenders, and both the jarl of Vale and of Theodstan escaped the city before we could close our fist around it.”
“Theodstan is in the camp,” Athelstan told him, “but it is ill news that Vale has fled. He above all others has the will and strength to resist us.”
“Theodstan is in the camp?” Eumund repeated. “My fears were right. I thought it likely either he or Vale would turn the Order army against us, hence our march here,” the young knight said, gesturing towards the columns of soldiers passing them.
“You show more sense than your father,” Athelstan said with some measure of frustration. “I warned him that it was imperative Vale was taken captive. More than anything it all hinged upon that.”
“It is too late for that. Plans have changed,” Eumund told him.
“You have brought these men here to attack the Order encampment?”
Eumund nodded. “Then resupply in Ingmond. I have brought the jarl with me to ensure their cooperation. Afterwards, we must strike at Vale before he can gather his full strength.”
“Your thoughts run true,” Athelstan conceded, “yet I am hesitant to follow their course.”
“Athelstan, you said yourself that this was a necessity. That all of this had to be done,” Eumund pointed out. “Since Vale is not in our grasp, war is inevitable.”
“I am aware,” Athelstan spoke with frustration. “I think I knew as soon as I saw Theodstan in the camp, I was merely reluctant to admit it. Perhaps why I wanted him to come with me.” The last sentence was added quietly as Athelstan glanced south.
“What did you say?”
“Never mind,” Athelstan told Eumund and turned his horse around. “We have a task before us,” he told his nephew as they rode to the head of the column.
Riding at a slow, almost leisurely pace, Brand eventually reached the camp. Around him, he saw the signs of an army preparing to march; tents were being pulled down and rolled together, lids nailed shut to barrels of grain or water, bedrolls stuffed tightly into packs, and so on. Brand’s attention was as dull as the pace of his horse, moving sluggishly among the men until he reached the tent he had hitherto shared with Athelstan, and he dismounted. Tying the horse to a nearby post almost as a reflex, he stood motionless, aimless. Glancing around at the other men breaking camp, he walked inside the tent to look at his belongings.
“He’s in here,” a voice called out. Several men entered the tent, armed and with hard looks in their eyes. They did not wear the surcoats of the Order but rather the colours of Theodstan. An ordinary Order soldier was with them and pointed at Brand. “That’s Sir Athelstan’s squire right there,” he told the thanes.
“Not the knight though,” objected one of the thanes. “Sir Richard only mentioned the knight.”
“Maybe we should ask the sergeant,” said another thane, “he always knows what the jarl wants done.”
“I’ll go find him and ask if we should take the squire too,” declared a third thane and promptly left the tent.
Realising what was going on, Brand woke from his stupor and placed his hands against his belt. “Listen here, you will not place one hand upon me. I am Adalbrand of House Arnling –”
His declaration was cut short by cries of alarm coming from outside, and both the thanes and the squire forgot their dispute in favour of running outside. “To arms,” came the cry, “we’re being attacked!” The shout was accompanied by the first couple of arrows landing, and one man fell with a scream. Everything descended into confusion; many soldiers were not wearing their mail or near their weapons, and they scrambled around, often colliding.
North of them, they could see line after line of soldiers rushing towards them, yelling fierce cries of war. A few, those with old scars and a calm head, began to gather near their banners; others, low in years and experience, began to panic. “Run!” some of them yelled and took their own advice as they bolted. One soldier, a boy too young that he should ever have been conscripted, threw his shield on the ground and turned in flight.
At this sight, Brand was spurred into action. The squire drew his sword and pummelled the fleeing boy in the stomach so he fell flat on his back. “Next man that runs will taste the sharp edge,” Brand yelled, which gave him the attention of the nearby soldiers. Looking towards those who had gathered around their banner, Brand pointed with his sword between two carts. “Take positions, form a battle line, in formation,” he shouted, and the men ran towards where he had indicated. The squire meanwhile unclasped his cloak and flung it back inside his tent, preparing himself for battle.
“Three ranks deep! Get going, you worthless maggots,” he added to those who stood wavering. “You there, take the flank,” he shouted to another group behind him that likewise stood idle. “Two ranks deep!” He turned to face the thanes from Theodstan, who had finally found their sergeant but otherwise stood doubtful. “You stand with me,” Brand ordered them, “kill any that passes through the line!”
“Yes, milord!” the thanes replied obediently, taking positions in front of him as if he were their jarl.
“Arrows!” came the warning cry as a volley threatened to descend from the sky.
“Shields!” Brand yelled, his own shield arm empty. He reached out and grabbed the lid of a barrel, which fortunately was not nailed shut yet, and he held it up to protect his head. The impact as a few arrows landed could be felt; when the projectile rain ended, he tossed it aside and turned his gaze ahead. The first line of attackers was nearly upon them, wearing the red and black of Isarn. “Stand fast!” Brand commanded the men. “Remember the drill, protect the man on your left with your shield,” he reminded them. “And by the Black Knight, give them swift passage to Hel!”
The lines clashed with a sound worse than any tournament, any games of war. The spears and swords were sharp, blood flowed freely, and some of the youngest vomited where they stood. At first, the Order ranks held and forced the attackers back; as both sides took losses, however, the soldiers of Isarn seemed to prevail and began to push through. The line threatened to disintegrate, and several enemies sought to get through in order to turn around and attack the defenders in the back.
“Move!” Brand urged the thanes, and they surged forward to close the gaps and protect the front fighters from being cut down from behind. One man escaped their blades, however, and Brand had no choice but to step forward and engage him. The soldier’s spear lunged forward against the squire, who diverted its course with his blade; Brand followed up by stepping so close, the Isarn soldier could not stab with his spear again. Before he could strike with his spear or draw his short sword, Brand slashed him across the throat and he fell dying to the ground.
“Hold fast!” Brand shouted again, and with the aid of the thanes, the line was restored. Another push by the Isarn soldiers, another repel. In the distance, Brand could at times hear sounds of war coming from other parts of the camp; then he was forced back into the fight present before him. The right flank threatened to fall, and several thanes were sent to reinforce it. The enemy was moving around the left to outflank them, and a handful of soldiers from the back of the ranks had to be pulled back to meet them. Several times Brand’s blade slaked its thirst, and more than once blood was drawn from him.
At length a horn sounded, and the attackers retreated. A look towards the west explained why; the sun had nearly set and it was growing dark. The advantage of surprise, which had served the Isarn soldiers at first, had long since waned, and it would soon be replaced by utter confusion if fighting continued into the night. Having more ordered ranks and fighting defensively, the advantage would have swung in favour of the Order soldiers.
With the fighting at an end, cheers rose from the beleaguered soldiers; weariness was evident in their voices, though, and with the rush of battle gone, many of them began to stand uneasy on their feet. Looking around, Brand could see scores upon scores of dead, and this was only in one part of the camp. Some were wounded so badly, they could now do nothing but lie on the ground helpless, while others staggered around, barely able to keep on their feet.
Turning to the thanes, Brand quickly gestured for them to approach. “You know Sir Richard, yes?”
“Yes, I know him,” answered Theodoric’s sergeant while the other thanes began to clean their weapons and check their scratches.
“Sir Richard holds charge now. Find him,” Brand told the sergeant from Theodstan. “Inform him of our status here. I will be along shortly once I have put things into order.”
“Yes, milord,” the sergeant said, bowing his head and hurrying away.
Meanwhile, Brand turned back towards the soldiers. “You, you, and you, keep watch,” he told those that seemed oldest and most reliable. “You over there, move our dead here and collect their weapons. You, gather the wounded over there,” he continued, issuing further orders and setting all to work.
In another part of the camp, Richard cleaned his sword and sheathed it. A ring of dead enemies lay around him; nearby stood Theodoric with a substantially smaller heap of foes. Both were relatively unscathed. “Damn those bastards to Hel,” Richard muttered as he surveyed the damage wrought to the camp and his men. They could still hear the sounds of the wounded calling out in agony, though the lay brothers had begun administering aid.
“What do we do now?” asked Theodoric.
“Truth be told, I am better at following orders than giving them,” Richard admitted, scratching his head. “But we have the night for getting this camp into a better defensive position. They will be back,” he said bleakly.
Before their conversation could continue, Theodoric’s sergeant arrived. “Milords,” he greeted the jarl and knight. “I was sent to report to you from the other part of camp. We have a few hundred dead, and I reckon about the same number with heavy wounds, unable to fight.”
“Wait, sent by whom?” asked Richard. “Frambold was the only other knight left besides me, and I saw him take a spear.”
“There was a young knight, sir, he took charge when they attacked. Kept our heads cool,” the sergeant explained.
“There are no other knights in camp,” Richard said. “Are you sure he was not just a man-at-arms?”
“I think he had spurs,” the sergeant said with some doubt, “but truth be told I didn’t have much time to look closely.”
“Where is this supposed knight now, Geberic?” asked Theodoric.
“Oh, there is he,” Geberic pointed towards Brand, who was approaching them. “He said he’d come here afterwards.”
“Sir Richard,” Brand saluted with his fist towards his chest.
“You are Athelstan’s squire,” Richard said with narrowed eyes as he recognised Brand.
“I was,” Brand admitted. “However, he is fighting for the other side, I am here. Since I know his stratagems better than any other, I thought to present myself to offer counsel.”
“Theodoric’s sergeant says you did well,” Richard acknowledged. “This is the jarl of Theodstan,” he said in introduction, nodding towards Theodoric.
“I am aware of who his lordship is,” Brand said, inclining his head to Theodoric. “I remember from the Adalthing.”
“That is where I have seen you,” came an outburst from Theodoric. “You are the atheling, Adalbrand.”
“I am, my lord, though right now I am a squire in the Order. As said, I wish to make myself available to serve as your lieutenant, Sir Richard.”
“Fine,” the knight nodded. “Since Frambold is dead and I got no other candidates, I will need somebody capable. I will even make you my first lieutenant,” Richard told him, and Brand accepted the promotion by inclining his head. “We need to get this army into shape again and be ready for a new assault.” By now, the sun had all but set.
“As your first lieutenant, I must point something out. This was a probing attack, meant to test our resolve and weaken it. Athelstan will let his forces rest and then begin a proper assault with morning light, and we are in poor condition to resist it,” Brand explained. “Regardless of what measures we may take now.”
“What do you suggest we do?” asked Richard.
“We leave at once and avoid a confrontation entirely. March through the night. Send a few groups east to the lord marshal explaining our absence while we disappear north into the hills. It will also give the impression our army has dispersed and is of no further threat,” Brand elaborated.
“You do not think we should carry out our original orders to join the lord marshal?” Richard asked.
“No. This army is the sole remaining Order presence in Adalrik. It is now our duty to quell this civil war, or the whole realm will be swallowed up by it. If we march to Hæthiod, we may get bogged down in the campaign there while the rebels roam free here,” Brand explained his position.
“Where should we march? Go west towards Vale?” suggested Theodoric, but Brand shook his head.
“That is the most likely destination, and Athelstan will be wary of it. If he catches up to us whilst we are unready, he will crush us. We go east and then straight north through the hills,” Brand suggested.
“Then we will be caught against the mountains,” objected the jarl. “Trapped and surely destroyed by Athelstan’s forces,” he claimed.
“Not if we cross them,” Brand claimed.
“Are you mad? Cross the Weolcans?” Theodoric said in disbelief.
“It is summer,” Brand pointed out. “There are always local herdsmen letting their animals graze up the mountains. They know the paths. We will make them show us the way.”
“That sounds like a severe risk,” the jarl said with a voice full of doubt. “We will have to leave our carts and most supplies behind. It will end up being a question of whether we starve or freeze to death.”
“It will be hard,” Brand admitted. “We cannot take the wounded either. Only those who can walk and who can carry their own necessities. Weapons, food for the journey, and a cloak, nothing more.”
“Geberic,” Theodoric said, turning to his sergeant, who was standing a few paces away. “Do you honestly think the men will not commit mutiny at hearing this?”
“Well, it never sits right leaving wounded people behind,” the old greybeard admitted, scratching said beard. “But I don’t think the men want to remain here either. We are your thanes, milord, we go anywhere you tell us to.”
“But the other men,” Theodoric continued, “the Order soldiers. A lot of them are clearly young and inexperienced. Will they not simply desert us?”
“There was one young lad who tried earlier tonight,” Geberic said, recounting the events of the battle. “But the young knight there,” the sergeant continued with a nod to Brand, “he knocked sense into him. Quite literally. I think the men will do as told, milord. Gods know it would have gone a lot worse if he hadn’t been there,” Geberic finished, looking slightly uncomfortable at gainsaying his own jarl.
“He is a squire,” Theodoric grumbled. “You can see his spurs are silver,” the jarl added, correcting Geberic’s mistake.
“Regardless,” Brand said, resuming control of the discussion, “this is our best choice. If we can disappear into the mountains, Athelstan will turn his attention and army elsewhere.”
“If we can disappear,” Theodoric reiterated. “If not, we will be trapped and slaughtered.”
“Athelstan has no interest in pursuing us,” Brand argued. “The longer he waits, the more forces will be mustered by Jarl Vale. As long as we give the impression that we have fled, he will be only too eager to march west.”
“And what of us?” asked Richard.
“After crossing the mountains, we in turn will be in northern Adalrik,” Brand explained. “Near Theodstan, where we can gain reinforcements and new provisions. And,” he added, “most importantly of all –”
“They will not expect it,” Richard exclaimed. “They will think all Order forces have left the realm while we have an army in their backyard. What a wonderfully mad plan!”
“Richard, you are not considering this?” Theodoric asked incredulously. “Crossing the mountains will likely kill half your army.”
“It will make heroes of the other half,” the knight said undisturbed. “Reinforcements from Theodstan will make up for the losses.”
“Unless the jarl has cause for not committing his troops to the Order?” Brand asked in a neutral voice, looking at Theodoric.
“Of course not,” the jarl muttered. “I only consider how it will affect morale to leave the wounded behind.”
“Athelstan is not a savage,” Brand replied. “There is no cause to believe they will harm those we cannot bring with us.”
“Even so,” Theodoric tried to argue. “Leaving the wounded, our tents, supplies… you will have to leave your horse behind,” the jarl pointed out to Richard, which gave the margrave pause.
“We must all make sacrifices,” the knight finally said. “For the good of the realm.” He turned until he spotted his own sergeant some distance away and called out to him. “Graulf, tell the men to pack their weapons and food and line up for march. But take only what they can carry on their backs. If anybody grumbles or thinks about desertion, I will cut off his manhood with a rusty knife,” Richard commanded the sergeant, who quickly complied.
A flurry of activity ensued in the camp as orders spread they were to prepare for march immediately. There were some complaints, and not all wished to comply; it sat hard with many to abandon the wounded as well as most of their belongings. Discipline prevailed, however, as the seasoned men-at-arms persuaded the common soldiers to follow orders, and there was no need for Richard’s rusty knife.
The knight captain himself was standing next to his horse. It was an old mare, but it had twice borne him to become champion of the horse. “I am so sorry, old girl,” Richard whispered, petting its muzzle. “I cannot take you with me.” The horse snorted in response. “I will send you with the soldiers going east. They will take good care of you, I promise,” he reassured the mare. “And when this is done, I will take you home to Alwood, and you will get a field all to yourself and all the apples you can eat.” This elicited another snort, and with some trepidation, the knight gave the reins to a nearby soldier, who had pointedly looked away from the exchange between the knight and his horse.
At the other end of the camp, Brand returned to his tent. His half-packed belongings were still on his cot. He opened the pack and pulled out his blanket, the bedroll, the oil for his sword, rags to polish his armour, and the small chess set that he brought with him on travels. Looking it over, Brand exhaled deeply; in his pocket, his fingers took hold of the king piece. Brand pulled it out and gazed intently on it; eventually, he put it back. He clasped his cloak around him and next grabbed his shield with his house insignia upon it. With a final glance towards his possessions spread over the cot, Brand turned and left the tent.
Outside, he nearly ran into a young soldier. “Apologies, sir!” said the soldier frantically, looking no older than a teenaged boy.
“Get ready for the march,” Brand said brusquely and began to move away.
“I am ready, sir,” the soldier said quickly. “I came to see if you required any help.”
“Me?” Brand asked, turning his head to look back. It was the soldier who had turned and fled before Brand’s pommel in his stomach had knocked him to the ground.
“You do not seem to have a squire, sir,” the boy explained. “I looked, and I couldn’t see any. So I thought – I would, or I could, I mean –”
“You thought you would be my squire?” Brand completed the boy’s stammering sentence.
“Yes, sir,” came the relieved reply.
“First of all, I am not a knight,” Brand began to explain, “hence I am not to be titled ‘sir’. Nor have I earned the privilege of a squire.”
“Oh,” the boy said dismayed.
“Secondly, a squire is in training to become a knight himself, must spend seven years as a page first, and be either of noble birth or at the very least be supported by one of high standing.”
“Oh,” the boy repeated himself with deeper dismay if possible.
“A sergeant, however,” Brand continued, “serves the same purpose as a squire. That is, he aids a knight in whatever capacity necessary. While only pages become squires, any soldier can be sergeant to a knight or to a nobleman, should he require such services.”
“So,” the boy said, working it out in his head, “may I request permission to be your sergeant?”
“You may,” Brand said amused. “What is your name?”
“Matthew, sir,” the newly made sergeant replied eagerly.
“Still not ‘sir’,” Brand reminded him. “Do you play chess?” The boy shook his head. “I will teach you. Are you packed for the march?” he asked, to which Matthew nodded several times. “Good. Your first task is to enter the tent behind us, find room in your pack for the small chess set lying on a cot, and bring it with us.”
“Yes, sir!” Matthew said enthusiastically, turning around and almost sprinting into the tent. Brand began to correct him again, but he abandoned it and continued towards where the soldiers were gathering for the march.
It was still early in the night when the march began. Groups of soldiers had been sent in other directions and told to make their way towards Hæthiod as best they could, bringing news of events in Adalrik to the lord marshal. The rest of the army, all those fit for hardship, marched in two files to mask their numbers. Each man wore his mail shirt on his body, his short sword by his waist, his cloak and shield on his back along with his pack of provisions, and a spear in his hand. They moved east for several hours before turning north, aiming for the distant peaks of the Weolcan Mountains.
When the vanguard of the Isarn army approached the Order encampment the following morning, they saw no signs of defenders. Cautiously, fearing a ruse, they crept closer. There were no soldiers hiding, no ambush sprung; all they found were abandoned tents and carts along with hundreds of wounded soldiers, tended to by a handful of lay brothers in their brown robes.
While the Isarn soldiers salvaged the many supplies left behind, scouts were sent ahead to locate the dispersed Order soldiers. They found tracks that for the most part led east. The scouts pursued them for half a day but saw no sign that these scattered groups converged again. Some led north, possibly with the aim of hiding in the hills where the terrain became rockier, but most seemed to be aiming for Hæthiod to re-join the Order forces there. At the end of the day, the scouts brought back this information to their commander. Having vanquished the only Order army in Adalrik, Athelstan of Isarn now turned his gaze and his thoughts west towards the province of Vale.