68. Solstice Gifts
Some ten days after departure, the Order army returned to Tothmor, having left a small force behind to guard Polisals along with those most severely wounded that they might heal and return to the army in their own time. Thus, it was with severely diminished numbers they entered the streets of Tothmor, and the cold weather kept many indoors; still, they returned with victory and news of liberation, and joy was finally returning to the city of circles. There were exceptions; some with dour disposition looked at the few Order soldiers and wondered what would happen once the outlanders woke from their winter slumber and retaliated.
With their fewer numbers, what remained of the army could be quartered comfortably in the first circle, so the entirety marched up the mountain to enter the palace district. On the steps into the keep, Brand was met by William. “You are looking hale,” the lieutenant smiled, “and on your feet.”
“I congratulate you on your victory,” William replied, grasping the other knight’s arm. “All of you,” he raised his voice, allowing the soldiers to hear. “You have fought well and brought peace to the oppressed. Hæthiod owes you a debt.” He spoke quietly again, directed only at Brand. “Let us talk inside.”
They entered the keep, walking up the tower to reach the marshal’s chamber that William occupied. The smell of blood and sweat was gone, replaced by crisp winter air. Sitting on a chair was Baldwin, oiling his own and his lord’s weapons. “My lord,” the squire exclaimed, standing up. “Welcome back!”
“Keep at your work,” Brand replied cordially with a wave of his hand, and the boy sat down again. The lieutenant went to the map of the Realms on the nearby table, indicating northern Hæthiod with his finger. “Another step taken.”
“Your stratagems have proven their worth,” William granted. “I notice the cost was steep, however.”
“There are four hundred men in Polisals still,” Brand explained. “At least half of them will join us eventually.”
“We are still hard pressed for men, not to mention arms and armour. I will make further attempts at recruitment, but we cannot expect to reach much beyond our original two thousands,” the captain declared.
“It will have to do,” his lieutenant argued. “We should not move until the Raven Days have passed, which gives us more than two months to replenish our force.”
“Unless the outlanders are already marching against us.” Both their eyes fell upon Lakon in southern Hæthiod. “They have the numbers to challenge us, and the risk of being besieged, being imprisoned in this city is as great as ever.”
“I trust that our rapid advances will make them cautious,” Brand said confidently. “They are more likely to await reinforcements and face us with greater numbers.”
“That seems speculative,” William argued. “We know too little to estimate their intentions and actions.”
“We lack for knowledge in general,” conceded his companion. “We will need to send scouts across the wall eventually. We need to be forewarned if more outlanders are arriving from the Reach.”
“Agreed.” The Hæthian knight paused briefly. “I have never heard of any of my people entering that place. Death and dust is all that awaits you, they always said.”
“The outlanders are men, nothing more. The Reach may be hostile to us, but nothing worse than what we are dealing with in Hæthiod,” Brand claimed self-assured. “We should resume interrogations of our prisoners, however, with an aim towards understanding the home of these outlanders. Where are their cities? What size armies do they field beyond what we have faced?”
“Who is their king?” The question came from Baldwin, making both knights suddenly turn their heads towards him. “Someone must be ordering the outlanders to invade us. I would like to know who is putting us through all of this.”
Brand’s mouth curled upwards. “I as well.” The implication of mirth disappeared from his face. “There is nothing more dangerous than not knowing the enemy you fight.”
“We saw that at Sikyon,” William muttered darkly. “I have never before seen so many ranks of bowmen, fighting as infantry when needed. I could never have imagined it. Their arrows darkened the sky.”
“We will not make such mistakes again. Gods willing, when spring comes we march upon Lakon and finish this campaign,” Brand swore.
“Tonight, however, it is the eve of solstice. A good meal is prepared for our conquering heroes,” William informed his lieutenant. “Tonight, we celebrate.” Agreeing with this sentiment, the other two present in the room followed the captain to the dining hall in the palace.
The Realms of Adalmearc celebrated winter solstice in different ways, but regardless of location, it involved food and drink; in peaceful years, Hæthiod was no different. With the current war and the recent siege, however, provisions allowing celebrations in Tothmor were limited, and the inhabitants spent the evening in the style of the northern lands with small gatherings at home. Many also went to the temples of the third circle.
Having suffered disproportionately to anyone else, the priests and priestesses had not made much progress in restoring their shrines. Not a single whiterobe remained in Tothmor. The other orders had cleansed the temple to Hamaring of the defilement that had taken place, but otherwise left it bare for when new whiterobes might arrive from Heohlond. Until then, any worshippers prayed in an empty space, surrounded only by bare walls.
Even with men and women of the cloth present, the other temples did not fare much better. The hitherto lush gardens of the greenrobes had been torn up, their sacred tree been felled and used for firewood, and the earth had been heavily salted to make it little more than a desert. It would take years if not decades of careful tending before the soil might sustain growth again. The same had been done to the herb garden at the temple of Idisea. Their stores of healing supplies had already been spent due to the siege, but books and parchments for teaching the healing arts had been destroyed.
So the story continued for each of the temples. The bull pen at Egnil had been burned and the bronze bull statue smashed to pieces along with the gilded drinking horns; in their zeal, the outlanders had not even spared the barrels of beer brewed by the priests, nor imbibed them, but simply toppled them to let the drink spill in its entirety.
The defilement was worst at the temple for Rihimil, as if the outlander priestess had particularly enjoyed causing sacrilege in this place. Blood from human sacrifices was everywhere, seeped into the floor and walls. While the bells of the other temples had been left alone, the outlanders had gone to the trouble of cutting them down here and destroying them as well.
To the faithful in Tothmor, their places of worship were barely recognisable. It was not merely awe of the divine that kept the behaviour of the supplicants subdued this solstice.
When Glaukos visited to the temple of Hamaring, he left a handful of silver marks upon its bare altar; even if there were no priests to accept the sacrifice, others followed the former Blade to pay tribute. The gods would still be watching, now more than ever, as some expressed it. Going outside, Glaukos crossed the gate square. It was already evening, but on solstice eve, the district gates remained open all night. Although fuel was scarce, torches were lit here and there, lighting the main streets. Staying in the circle of temples, Glaukos’ steps steered him towards the establishment known as The Pork and Pepper.
Few people were in the common room, giving Glaukos plenty of options where to sit. He nodded to the tavern keeper, who greeted him with familiarity.
“Ale and food,” the warrior explained. Soon enough, a tankard of drink was placed in front of him along with a bowl containing a stew that was mostly water with some leek rings floating near the top and chunks of questionable meat. Glaukos looked at it with little enthusiasm, but dug out a couple of marks nonetheless. There were plenty more in his coin purse; after the battle of Polisals, Brand had been generous.
Grateful, the owner scooped the coins up and left Glaukos to eat and drink. He filled the spoon and had a taste. With slight dismay on his face, he took a sip of the ale, though that did not alleviate his disheartened expression. With a faint sigh, he grabbed the spoon again.
“Enjoying your dinner?” The question was spoken with scorn and made Glaukos look up. Speaking to him was Nikolaos, one of his former compatriots.
“It is not bad,” Glaukos claimed. “Good to see you in one piece,” he added tentatively.
“Is it?” sneered the other man. “You certainly didn’t come looking when you had the chance.”
Glaukos put the spoon down. “I thought you were all dead. I heard about Philemon and Andreas and figured it was the same story for anyone else.”
“Aye, same here. I thought the blackboot bastards got the rest and only I survived,” Nikolaos explained, anger slowly rising in his voice. “Imagine my surprise when I am told an old friend of mine is walking around, alive, dressed in good clothes, throwing silver around at the temple.” He looked towards the food on Glaukos’ table. “Your purse seems to be full.”
“If you’re hungry, I can buy you something to eat –”
“I don’t want anything from you, knowing where that silver came from,” Nikolaos spat. “You won’t buy forgiveness from me as easily as you bought it at the temple.”
Glaukos’ eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
“It’s bleeding obvious. We walk into a trap. Days later, here you are, fine clothes and eagles in your purse, eating and drinking. You Blades,” Nikolaos spoke with disgust. “Let the king die, abandon the queen, sell us ordinary folk out like the traitorous –”
This time it was Nikolaos who was interrupted; Glaukos’ fist hit him on the chin and sent him straight on his back. Standing up so quickly that his chair fell to the ground, the former Blade loomed over the other man. “I’ve killed more outlanders than a spineless toad like you could lick your tongue at. You care so much about stew and silver, you can have it.” With the rest of the tavern watching in stunned silence and his target lying paralysed in fear, Glaukos emptied the bowl’s content on top of Nikolaos and threw a silver piece onto his chest. Then he grabbed his mug of ale, drank it in one draft, and walked with heavy strides out the door. Behind him, Nikolaos picked up the silver piece and wiped the stew from it.
The fifth circle had its share of watering holes, though finding any that still had anything in store was nigh impossible. Such was also the case at Guy’s tavern.
“I have nothing to serve you,” the owner called out from the kitchen as he could hear someone entering.
“Just a place to sleep will do,” came the answer.
“I suppose that can be arranged,” Guy granted, entering his common room. “Godfrey! Of course, come in, come in!” He closed the distance between them and stood a little apprehensive before the traveller, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “You are back and alive! After you left, I wondered many times how you fared.”
“I fared a long distance and back again,” Godfrey smiled wearily. “You and your son?”
“We are both well, thank you.”
“Good.” Godfrey nodded a little. “I sometimes worries if I should have told you to flee the city, regardless of the risk…”
“We survived. Nothing to worry about anymore. I haven’t forgotten what you did for my boy, either.” A tinge of gratitude entered Guy’s voice.
“In that case, I shall rely on your memory to ask for a bed. I am tired of sleeping in walls,” Godfrey explained with a wry smile.
“I never quite understand you, but a bed, I can provide,” Guy promised. “And you are just in time to join our solstice meal.”
“No need, no need. You must be hard pressed as it is.”
“It would not be right to have a guest in my house who does not share our meal this night,” Guy argued.
“Well, if you insist, I accept gratefully,” Godfrey decided.
“Keep your gratitude until you taste it,” Guy laughed and led his guest into the kitchen, where his son was already filling an extra plate.
The following day, activities resumed as normal. The returning soldiers were added to the garrison and put on watch duty, freeing up the recruits for further training. The open spaces between the palace and the Order keep in the first circle were put to this use, practising formations. Brand was also present, watching the soldiers train, though the actual instructions were yelled by men-at-arms acting as overseers. The first lieutenant’s gaze was idle, his mind elsewhere.
A knight approached, flanked by two Order soldiers. “These men told me you wished to speak,” he declared. By his tone of voice and expression, it was obvious he did not care for being summoned this way.
“You did not heed the signal given in battle, Sir Vilmund,” Brand spoke coldly, only looking at the knight as he pronounced his name.
“What?” Vilmund’s eyes narrowed.
“My bannerman sounded the horn to no effect. He rode into battle to inform you, yet still you did not retreat as I commanded,” Brand explained with the frost almost palpable in his voice.
“I neither heard nor received any command to retreat,” the knight claimed, his tone matching Brand’s. “We were scattering the enemy,” he defended himself, “it was the heat of battle.”
“My bannerman swore he reached you and told you, yet you did not pull your men back to reinforce the left flank.” The accusation in the lieutenant’s words were clear.
“Then he lies.”
“I have no reason to believe he does.”
“The word of a common soldier means nothing compared to the word of a knight,” Vilmund argued.
“It does to me.”
“What does it matter?” he sneered. “Victory was achieved, and your own actions on the flank made you the champion of these men you hold in such high regard.” He shot a disdainful glance at the soldiers by his side.
“It matters,” Brand raised his voice, “because your failure to obey could have cost us that victory. Regardless of the outcome, you failed in your duty.”
“I will not be lectured about the duties of a knight from someone hardly old enough to wear the spurs,” Vilmund fumed, turning to leave.
“Sir Vilmund,” Brand called out, now speaking loud enough that all nearby could hear, “you did not perform your duty as is expected of any warrior of the Order. You will be punished.”
The knight turned back, incensed. “How dare you! How dare you impugn my honour! I demand satisfaction!”
“You demand nothing!” Brand roared. “I am your commander, and you have no right to challenge me for the sake of honour!” He nodded to the soldiers standing by. “Seize him and strip him to be flogged!”
Vilmund’s protestations became unintelligible screams as several men grabbed his limbs, forcing him to the ground on his stomach. He continued to squirm and resist, giving them some difficulty, but they were enough to keep him subdued while also removing his surcoat, chain shirt, and the tunic underneath until only his cotton shirt remained.
They pulled him up again and lashed him to nearby poles that were normally used for training. Another soldier appeared with a whip in hand.
“You cannot do this!” cried Vilmund. “I am a knight!”
“Which only makes your crime worse,” Brand declared. He nodded to the soldier, who dealt out ten lashes, each causing a rift in the shirt and drawing blood. The spectacle was witnessed by the men in silence. At the first hit, the knight called out in pain; he was mute for the remaining nine.
When the whipping was done, the soldiers released Vilmund. He staggered for a moment but regained his footing. A lay brother approached with salve and bandages; with a sneer, the knight pushed past him and disappeared into his quarters inside the palace.
The council chamber of the palace, where once the outlander commander had conducted his business, was now used by Brand when needed. Sitting in the chair that had seated a queen and an outlander before him, the lieutenant was dictating a letter to the young scribe by his side. “After victory had been achieved, the army of the Order marched upon Polisals. The outlander garrison surrendered, opening the gates of the city. Three hundred were captured in addition to those taken prisoner after the battle. All of northern Hæthiod is now freed of the outlander scourge.”
Furiously, Egil’s quill scribbled over the paper.
“That is all,” Brand declared, pressing his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “Have it sent to the quartermaster at the Citadel. Make a second version containing the same, except you leave out all numbers concerning our army, dead, wounded and so forth. Have that one sent to the town criers in Middanhal to share the news of our victory with the citizens.”
The lieutenant rose to his feet and left the room without further words. Returning to his chamber, he lay down on his bed, still wearing armour and surcoat, and closed his eyes.