67. To the Spear Be Bold
To the Spear Be Bold
Twelve hundred Order soldiers marched west to circumvent Mount Tothmor, heading north afterwards. In the far distance could be seen the Weolcan Mountains; under their shadow lay Polisals, their destination. The army moved swiftly, being only lightly encumbered. Other than the most necessary supplies, it brought only wooden logs to fortify the camp each night and to build siege equipment with. Anything else that would normally have made the camp into a small town of its own with blacksmiths, tanners, butchers, and many other craftsmen, had been left behind. There were no horses either or knights, no fences or rudimentary stables raised for the night. This was the primary reason why the army brought such few supplies, as feed was not necessary, and the need for water was greatly reduced.
Apart from being scrapped for anything not deemed an absolute necessity, the army was distinguished by another unusual feature. It brought along a number of outlander prisoners, all of whom could speak Nordspeech. They were chained by the hands, allowing them to walk normally, and all of them linked together and fastened to the supply carts. Each night, they were brought inside the camp and their chains connected to a thick pole while kept under guard.
Geberic, known as the first lieutenant’s man, personally supervised the prisoners and the watch kept on them. With William remaining in Tothmor, Brand was the acting knight captain, thereby indirectly enhancing Geberic’s authority. Although the latter was not an Order soldier, the men obeyed him readily, and any order spoken by Geberic concerning the prisoners was quickly adhered to.
During the day, the pace was kept swift, preventing the outlanders from doing anything but focus on the march. When break was held, they were forced to sit, restricting their view of their surroundings, and they were forbidden from conversing with each other. At night, Geberic made sure their chains were secure and no attempts of escape were possible.
Despite these precautions, it could not be prevented that the outlanders listened to the soldiers talking, occasionally picking up bits of information. Geberic did his best to prevent such occurrences, but useful drops of knowledge trickled through nonetheless.
Even worse were the events of the fourth night when Polisals was but a few days away. The army was making camp, and in spite of Geberic’s vigilance, a fatal mistake concerning the prisoners were made. The palisades had not yet been raised when the outlanders’ chains were removed from the carts to be fastened to a wooden pole. As this was happening, Geberic appeared, inspecting the soldiers on duty. This left a brief moment in which the prisoners’ chains were loose. They were quick to seize the opportunity. Slipping the chains from the rings around their hands, the captives leapt into action, rushing out of camp. As the fortifications had not been erected yet, there were no immediate obstacles in their path. All ten of them ran north, pushing men aside and bolting towards the north. Cries of alarm went up, and the chase was on.
Some hours later, past midnight, Geberic sought out his master. “We captured three of them, and four were killed. The remaining three must be making their way towards Polisals,” he spoke quietly, even if none were present in the tent but a sleeping Matthew.
“Good,” Brand nodded. “That should do it. Tomorrow, send a message to Sir Vilmund. The rearguard caught sight of one of his men yesterday. Tell him to keep greater distance.”
“Very good, milord,” Geberic acquiesced. He left, whereas Brand went to bed with a satisfied expression.
A few days later, a couple of outlanders reached Polisals. Their clothes were little more than rags, they were exhausted to the point of losing consciousness, and their feet were torn and lacerated from having run a great distance in ragged shoes. Once they had been given water, they were brought before Jenaab Dalir, commander of the city. They news they brought were dire. They confirmed that the lack of missives from Tothmor was because the city had fallen to the Mearcians. In a surprise assault at night, they had seized the city. One of their knights had even slain a shadow warrior in single combat, prompting fear to infect all who listened. Worse, the Order now marched against Polisals. Their army was not great and did not even have cavalry, and they did not seem prepared for a lengthy siege. Their only purpose could be a surprise assault such as the one against Tothmor, where the Mearcians had succeeded against all odds.
Dalir summoned his advisors. Some argued in favour of preparing for a siege; if the garrison could last the winter, reinforcements would surely be sent from the south eventually to attack Tothmor and relieve Polisals. The fear of deception spoke against this; the Mearcians had found some way to take Tothmor against a much greater garrison, using some manner of deceit. Polisals was their city originally; what if they knew of some secret way inside?
Others thought that unlikely; there had been no sign of this so far, not even when the Hæthians had rioted and there had been skirmishes in the streets. When the city had fallen to the outlanders some months ago, there had been nothing to indicate secret passageways then either.
This was but one possibility; the city was full of traitors against the Godking. One man in the right place, opening a gate, could be enough to let the Order flood inside and take the city.
Dalir spoke little, but his face conveyed many emotions. Confusion and uncertainty were chief among them, followed by dismay, though occasionally, anger could suddenly flare up at the mention of these deceitful Mearcians marching against him.
In the end, the call for resolute and decisive action took precedence. Rather than sit like cowards behind the walls, risking some kind of subterfuge, Dalir would lead the Godking’s soldiers against the Order army. Being half as many as the outlanders and with neither side possessing horsemen, the Mearcians’ rash overconfidence would be turned against them.
Two days later, the Order army stood arrayed on the plains south of Polisals. Heavily outnumbered, none was kept in reserve. Behind the battle lines, Brand sat atop his horse with only a small band of men surrounding him, two of which were not even warriors. The commander exuded confidence, even in the face of the outlander army that took position opposite them. Twice their number, they held a good number of Anausa infantry back to serve as reinforcements, and still their ranks stood deep and heavy compared to the Order, whose lines were stretched thin to match the length of their enemy.
Despite this, the knight captain showed no signs of uncertainty. With the advantage heavily in favour of the outlanders, he had ordered his soldiers to stand fast and wait for the enemy to charge, letting the outlanders suffer the disruption of ranks that inevitably would follow when rushing forward.
To the north, Jenaab Dalir watched the Order army holding position. As the sun slowly began to climb the horizon and there was no sign of change, he gave the order for his army to march forward. Less than a mile separated the two forces; tension, anticipation, fear, and a myriad of other emotions began to seep through the ranks on both sides.
At first, the opposing army was little more than blurred colours in the distance. All too quickly, the image sharpened and the individual soldiers could be distinguished. Their armour and weapons became visible. The dust kicked up by their feet could be seen swirling around their legs.
The outlanders stopped. The Anausa took their bows from their backs and began shooting volley after volley. In response, the Order soldiers raised their infantry shields and waited out the barrage. Realising the futility, the captain ordered his men to put away their bows and close the distance.
The outlanders began a quick march. Soon, the individual features of each face could be determined along with all the expressions that had not changed since the soldiers first began to approach their enemy.
Less than three hundred yards separated the armies. The Anausa and their supporting levies broke into a light run.
At a hundred yards, they began the sprint.
At fifty yards of distance, the Order soldiers responded by surging forward as well, adding momentum to their defence against the outlander charge.
“For the Godking!” “For the Star!”
The clamour of voices was replaced by the sound of steel. Cries of war turned into cries of death. Blood sprayed like fountains and was greedily drunk by the dust on the ground. Everywhere, men suffered and died.
Typically, a commander would be surrounded by a retinue of his best warriors, both for protection and as an elite fighting force to bring to battle. Thanes or the like. Brand had an old greybeard, a former Queen’s Blade, two longbowmen, a sergeant too young that he should ever have been allowed into the Order, a bard, and a scribe’s apprentice. The only person who did not seem out of place other than Brand was the Order soldier acting as his ensign and horn blower. Had the location been different, they would have been mistaken for an acting troupe.
Each man was in his own state of mind. Geberic sat passively on his horse. Glaukos watched the battle with eyes that were narrowed, containing suppressed anger. Nicholas was idly commenting on the battle as it unfolded to Quentin, who gave only muted responses. Matthew was eagerly watching everything and loudly remarking on all that he noticed. Troy was whispering different lines, constantly rearranging the verses, looking for anything with particular heroic or tragic quality that he might turn into song. Egil, bearing the brunt of Matthew’s remarks, was keenly observing the fighting, doing his best to understand the game of chess playing out before him. The bannerman was eating a pear.
As for Brand, he constantly shifted his attention between looking behind him and inspecting the spectacle in front of him. The outlanders had put their levies to the east, so despite their fewer numbers, the Order infantry easily held the right flank and were even gaining ground. Inferior in equipment, training, and experience, these peasant soldiers were simply no match against the professional warriors fielded by the Order.
The left flank to the west was a different matter. Before Brand’s eyes, the Anausa were pushing forward. With the terrain affording neither side any advantages and both types of soldiers being equal as warriors, it was a question of who had the heavier armour and the greater numbers. With their great shields and Nordsteel chain shirts, the Order could claim the former, but it was not enough to outweigh that for every soldier of the Star, two were fighting for the Godking. Constantly, gaps were threatening to appear in the lines of the Mearcians, and the men-at-arms in the back ranks were hard pressed to plug them. Defeat was slowly, but surely approaching for the Order army.
An hour of fighting passed. Hundreds on both sides had already fallen; although the battle was not in their favour, the Mearcians made the outlanders pay for each step taken towards victory. With the fighting being this hard, it promised to last all day and into the night, whittling both sides down until none would be left standing.
A sigh of relief escaped Brand, breaking his confident expression momentarily. Gazing back, a cloud of dust could be seen approaching from the south. Soon, a new sound joined the noise of steel breaking and men dying; hundreds of horses were riding north, their hooves thundering against the earth.
All eyes in Brand’s group turned back, watching the progression of the cavalry. Led by Sir Vilmund, known for his impetuousness in battle, the hundred and fifty knights were riding as swiftly as they could without exhausting their mounts before joining the fight.
The flat plains meant that the riders’ approach were hidden behind their own soldiers, shielding them from the outlanders. Only when they veered to the right, describing a semi-circle to allow their assault into the flank of the enemy, could their arrival no longer be concealed. There was not time for the outlanders to shore up their ranks in preparation; the wedge of knights rammed deep into their lines, all but disintegrating them. The peasant levies, already under pressure from the Order infantry, broke and began to flee.
With a smile, Brand watched the battle turn in his favour; around him, his companions exchanged excited remarks.
Although it was too late to stop the charge of the knights, the outlander captain sent his reserves to the eastern lines. The Anausa speedily moved into position, keeping the entire flank from falling apart. Faced with enemy soldiers superior to those before, the advance of the Order infantry was halted, and bitter fighting erupted once more. Meanwhile, the momentum of the knights had ended, and their disciplined charge had turned into chaotic skirmishes, especially as some of the horsemen began to chase the fleeing levies.
“Captain,” Geberic spoke quietly, nodding towards their left.
“I see it,” Brand spoke curtly.
After sending his remaining troops into battle to support one flank, the outlander captain had realised his enemy’s weakness on the other and decided to exploit it. Riding forth, Jenaab Dalir and his personal guard swiftly reached the battle lines westwards, acting as shock troops against the weary Mearcians. Their ranks threatened to collapse; they were already straining under the relentless assault from the Anausa, who in turn were encouraged by the presence of their commander. In resplendent, gilded armour and astride a black stallion, Dalir was an imposing sight, and with his retinue, they were cutting their way through the Order soldiers.
“Signal the cavalry to pull back,” Brand ordered his ensign. The latter nodded and took the horn hanging around his neck, blowing two short notes. Nothing happened except that more of the knights broke away to pursue the fleeing enemy. “Signal again,” Brand commanded impatiently. The bannerman sounded the horn, but it did not appear to have effect. “Matthew,” the young captain barked, “find Sir Vilmund and tell him to reinforce the left flank. Now!”
Matthew nodded and gave half a salute at the same time, galloping away.
“Geberic, Glaukos, stay on my flanks. You,” Brand continued, looking at the archers, “clear a path for me as best you can once we are in the fray.” His men gave curt nods, preparing their weapons. Grabbing tight hold of his shield, Brand placed the reins in the same hand and drew his sword. His spurs sent his horse into a slow trot, soon followed by the others, leaving only the bard and the scribe behind.
It was afternoon; the battle had lasted several hours, and with both armies carving slowly through the other, the slaughter promised to continue many more.
Reaching his army, Brand saw that the left flank was all but torn apart. The lines were broken or simply gone in most places, and only pockets of resistance remained on the extreme left. Spurring his horse into a gallop, the captain charged directly into the enemy, followed by his guards.
The first couple of outlanders fell swiftly, but the shock of his assault wore off, and a spear took his mount, making Brand tumble to the ground. Quickly, Geberic and Glaukos dismounted as well, taking up position on either side of him. The longbowmen leapt to the ground also as their bows were too large to be handled on horseback. They sent their arrows flying, thinning out the horde of outlanders surrounding the captain and his men. Despite their efforts, it was obvious that the line could not be reformed; the red-robed soldiers had broken through their black-clad counterparts. Instead, Brand set a course through the throng of enemies. Dalir in his magnificent armour on his steed, the plume of his helmet visible even in the confusion of battle, served as waymark.
Geberic was hard pressed, barely able to land blows, and only the aid of the archers behind kept him from being overwhelmed. Glaukos was in his element on the other hand, felling outlander after outlander and occasionally clearing an enemy from Brand’s path as well. Thanks to the strength of his arm, the young knight reached his target.
First, Brand slashed at the front leg of the horse, making it fall forward and throw its rider to the ground. Dalir was swiftly on his feet in response, and the two commanders now faced each other. Already a sea of red threatened to swallow them both as the Anausa rushed forward to save one captain and kill another. Caution long since abandoned, Brand leapt forward and struck.
Had warriors of lesser skill been by his side, Brand would have been surrounded and slain, but disdaining their own safety, Glaukos and Geberic kept the outlanders at bay. Arrow after arrow flew, affording them the occasional moment of respite, though nothing longer than that. And none of them could intervene in the fight that Brand was embroiled in; it had been his choice to recklessly strike against Dalir, and it was only he who could finish it.
Sweat pouring down his face, Brand did not seem in any position to accomplish this. His opponent was among the elite of the outlanders with the weapon training that followed, and his armour, not merely ornate, was heavier and thicker than that of the Anausa; it scorned every blow by Brand’s Nordsteel blade, and the knight could not find an opening.
Suddenly, he stumbled backwards, falling to the ground. Eagerly, Dalir moved forward to seize the opportunity; in his haste, he did not notice that Brand had fallen in a manner that kept his legs crouched beneath him. As Dalir was almost in reach to strike, Brand was on his feet again. He trapped his enemy’s sword with his own shield, just for a few moments, but long enough. Unable to free his sword and protect his right side, Dalir was defenceless against the next attack that came. Summoning his strength for a terrible blow, Brand hacked his weapon into the other captain’s neck, finding the smallest of openings where the armour met the helmet.
Pulling his sword back, a spray of blood followed. Dalir stood still, life leaving his eyes. Brand hacked again and again until the head came off. Thrusting his sword into the ground, the knight grabbed the plume of the ornate helmet. It was so well fitted that as Brand pulled the helm up, the head inside did not come loose, but stayed inside its shell.
“He is dead! The enemy captain is dead!” Brand shouted, hoisting the decapitated head of his foe into the air. With his height and long arm, the veracity of his words were plain to see for those nearby; the nature of the helmet left no doubt as to its owner. Mearcians encouraged, outlanders discouraged, the former fought harder and the latter less. The cry went up on both sides in both languages, announcing the death of Jenaab Dalir. The standstill was broken, the Anausa began to take flight, and the Order soldiers gave pursuit. At first, it happened slowly, like pebbles crumbling from a tower; then came the avalanche, the tower crashing down, the entirety of the army abandoning battle.
Wounds on his body and crimson colour on his armour, Brand stood surrounded by his men, breathing the blood-soaked air greedily. It seemed to take him a while to remember the ghastly trophy in his hand, and he finally dropped it, picking up his sword instead to clean it and sheathe it. Looking up again, he found the soldiers of the Star staring at him.
Fist beat against chest repeatedly. The blood of his forbear was invoked in a murmur, until it was broken by a roar. “Dragonheart!”
There was a moment of silence before it was repeated by all the drakonians nearby. “Dragonheart! Dragonheart!”
The chant continued, gaining strength as the men of Adalrik bestowed this epithet upon their captain, the ekename given to the boldest of Sigvard’s line. Surrounded by soldiers, by loyalty, by devotion, the young commander stood victorious on the field of battle, his field of battle, and accepted their praise. In this moment, he seemed invincible.
The mounted knights pursued the enemy, felling as many as they could. The infantry took care of their wounded, collected equipment, and buried the dead. The price of victory was steep. A quarter of the Order footmen were committed to the earth; the same number was too badly wounded to fight, and time would tell how many would recover fully.
With these basic steps taken and the knights returned, Brand marched the remainder of the army to Polisals. What was left of the outlander garrison was given a simple choice. If they surrendered, their lives would be spared. If the Order was forced to storm the city, every single one of them would be put to the sword. After an hour of deliberation, the gates were opened and the outlanders lay down their weapons. Polisals, the central city of northern Hæthiod and the key that unlocked the salt mines of this region, was free.