71. Where Songs Are Made
Where Songs Are Made
Two weeks after departure, Brand’s patrol returned home. There had been some delay in setting out, as the discovery of Hugh’s treachery had necessitated investigation into the identity of every soldier going with him. In the end, only drakonians who had been with the army as far back as crossing the Weolcans were allowed to join; the sole exception to this was Glaukos. At someone’s suggestion that the venture be abandoned entirely or at least postponed, Brand had laughed dismissively, and the patrol set out almost as planned.
It was a dirty and dusty band that walked into camp with weary steps, but their number was complete; not a single man had been lost. Several of them hurried towards the water barrels and drank copiously. It was not common procedure to be allowed water outside of rations, but Brand gave them permission. Personally, he went to his tent, filled a cup with wine, and emptied it. He scratched the stubbles on his cheeks, the beginnings of a beard, and washed his face in a bowl of water.
Matthew appeared, bursting with excitement. Only Geberic and Glaukos of Brand’s retinue had followed him beyond the Langstan and into the Reach. As the young sergeant began to speak, however, Brand raised a finger to silence him. “You may follow me to Sir William’s tent.”
Keeping his questions to himself, Matthew waited patiently while Brand removed the worst of the travel dust from his face and hands. Once satisfied, the knight left, his sergeant in tow.
William was reading dispatches from Middanhal when his lieutenant entered. The captain threw the letters on his table and stood up, sending an assessing glance over the travel-weary knight in front of him. “You seem in good order.”
“There was no fighting,” Brand explained. “They barely keep watch of the wasteland beyond the wall, and we had no difficulty avoiding them. They must be confident there is no need to maintain a watch.”
“What else did you learn?”
“Some miles directly south, the outlanders keep a small post. There is fresh water, and I assume it is the final stop for any army of theirs before crossing the Langstan. There are no defences, and seizing the outpost would be easy.”
“Using its water for our army,” William nodded. “Beyond this outpost?”
“There is a city,” Brand elaborated. “We came close enough to see its walls in the distance. It would be about a week’s march to reach, I estimate, from the wall. It is small, smaller than Lakon.”
“Nothing impressive. Not even a keep, I think. Merely walls and a few towers by the gate I could see. It would fall easily.”
There was a moment before William spoke again. “A city only a week away from the Langstan. Who would have imagined?”
“It is strange,” Brand conceded. “I saw no fields or other activity to support a dwelling of thousands. There could be on the far side of the city, of course. In any case, the surrounding land is flat with no obstacles, making for an easy siege.”
“All we need is in army,” William remarked dryly.
“Any luck with Prince Aquila?”
The captain shook his head. “Any attempt to change his mind has been futile. In his mind, the rivermen are a greater threat than the outlanders. He outright refuses to speak with me now.”
“I should go to Korndale,” Brand considered. “I can convince the king to support our endeavour.”
“We will need assistance from the Order, from Middanhal,” William argued. “Though I am unsure with whom to speak… there is no lord marshal to authorise a new campaign.”
“Speak with the quartermaster,” Brand suggested. “We are not embarking on a new mission. We simply need soldiers and provisions to conclude our current campaign, which he may release.”
“That seems dubious.”
“The marshals cannot be relied upon,” Brand argued. “They have done nothing to elect a new lord marshal. Are you willing to wait years until our current heir is crowned and chooses one? What if our new king opposes our campaign? We will have waited for nothing.”
“The quartermaster it is,” William conceded.
“I could handle that,” Brand considered. “Travel to Plenmont first and Middanhal afterwards.”
The other knight shook his head. “You have enemies in Middanhal. You told me yourself that the lord protector sent you to Hæthiod in order for you to be forgotten. I hardly think those same people would be amenable to granting you an army for invading the Reach.”
Brand was quiet momentarily. “You are right.” He cleared his throat. “We cannot have both the commanders of the Order leave, however. With Prince Aquila unreliable, one of us has to maintain control of the situation here.”
“Not necessarily. With our sight extended beyond the Langstan, we will have fair warning if the outlanders come in force. The siege can continue without us,” William argued, “and if enemy reinforcements arrive, we should pull back. Delay any fight until we have our own reinforcements from Korndale or Adalrik, depending on how you and I succeed.”
“It seems a risk to have us both leave this army in the hands of others,” Brand remarked hesitantly.
“The siege will not be done before one of us return. If battle is to be fought, better we do so with extra men. Success will depend on Plenmont and Middanhal,” William claimed. “Sir Ewind can handle matters until we return.”
“Very well,” Brand assented. “So be it.”
“Before you leave, the latest delivery post had letters and a package for you. I held them here for safekeeping,” William explained, handling a bundle to his lieutenant.
“Much obliged,” Brand smiled. “If you will excuse me.” He left the tent, followed by Matthew.
Back in his own domain, Brand had his sergeant remove his boots, his surcoat, and chain shirt. Less encumbered, the knight washed himself more thoroughly than when he had first arrived in camp, combing his hair as well. Examining his stubbles once more, Brand let them be and settled in a chair instead to open his letters, both of them from Arndis. “Tell Egil to come to my tent soon,” he commanded Matthew. “I wish to dictate a letter.”
The boy nodded vigorously and left, leaving Brand with his package. It was wrapped in woolskin tied with heavy string, which his knife first cut. Unpacking the soft skin, a book appeared, bound in leather. The golden letters of the title shone as a testament of being newly written. Eagerly opening the tome, Brand’s eyes lingered on every word of the first page.
Steps announced someone entering the tent. “That was fast,” Brand commented, looking up. It was not Matthew or Egil, however, but one of the guards watching his tent.
“Someone named Godfrey claims to have business with you,” the soldier explained.
Brand gave a nod. “Send him in.”
Clad in his customary garb that spoke of long journeys, Godfrey wandered in. “Well met, sir knight. Barely back and already reading?” he asked with amusement in his tone.
“I commissioned this from the whiterobes before I left Middanhal,” Brand explained with satisfaction. “
Ruminations upon the Art of Governance,
by Anselm of Monteau. Cost me eighty eagles, but worth every petty.”
“He was an astute fellow,” Godfrey agreed.
Brand turned several pages in, his eyes glancing over the words.
“In matters of discipline, be not cordial. In matters of generosity, be not stern,”
he read aloud.
“The man with reputation for being stern or cordial will either way be admired by some, disliked by others, but a reputation for justice is superior to both and appeals to all.”
“You sound like a man who has read it many times before.”
Brand was on the verge of saying something but closed the book instead, putting it away. “You are not here to discuss Master Anselm of Monteau.”
“I wish to know if your journey proved the veracity of my words.”
The knight nodded a few times. “It did. Everything was as you said it would be, where you said it would be.”
“Does this mean my impending and painful execution is delayed?” He said this with a smile.
“Abolished,” Brand granted. “Why the Highfather would send a servant into the Reach is beyond my mind to guess, but your knowledge can be trusted.”
“I can offer more than that. I will travel to Middanhal and encourage the Highfather to support your campaign, along with any others within my reach.”
“I suppose it cannot hurt,” Brand assented. “With no lord marshal, matters in Middanhal are – unstable. Sir William will also go the capital.”
“I will leave soon, in that case, that I might return soon as well. I bid you farewell for now.”
“Gods go with you,” Brand told him. Once alone, the knight picked up his book again.
The other returning warriors were likewise cleansing themselves of the journey and tending to their equipment. There was not a book but a blade in Hubert’s hands, receiving oil, when he had his own visitor. “Glaukos,” the count greeted him. “I am pleased to see you return.”
“My thanks, my lord,” the warrior replied. “While my blade remains clean, it was a tense journey nonetheless. We learned much of value, and we are prepared to take the fight to the scum of the wasteland.”
“I envy you, being among the first to enter the Reach,” Hubert admitted. “For the rest of your life, you will have a tale to tell that few can match.”
“Knowing that Sir Adalbrand plans to return to the Reach,” Glaukos ventured to say, “is the reason I come to see you.”
“What is it?” The count gave a frown.
“I pledged myself to his service while in Tothmor, fighting by his side at Polisals,” Glaukos began explaining.
“Another achievement to your name,” Hubert pointed out graciously.
“With the return of our queen, I found myself serving two masters. Travelling here as protector of the king delayed the issue, but it cannot be delayed forever.”
“What issue?” Hubert asked confounded. “You are a Blade. That has not changed.”
“I am,” Glaukos assented. “But once our land is free, our king and queen will remain in Tothmor, I imagine. If I want to fight the outlanders, I have to follow the new campaign beyond the wall. I have to follow Sir Adalbrand.”
The frown appearing occasionally on Hubert’s face became a scowl. “You would forsake your oath? Only death can release you from your obligation as a Queen’s Blade.”
“Or the person I am bound to,” Glaukos corrected. “My oath is to the king and queen, and they may set me free.”
“This is unheard of!” Hubert almost leapt to his feet, his sword being flung aside and landing on the ground. “A Blade who wishes to leave the worthiest service any warrior in this land could aspire to!”
Glaukos swallowed, taking a step back. “I understand your displeasure.”
“You trained me, Lord Hubert, and you have always been the ideal to which I aspired.”
“Clearly I did not train you well enough!”
“But I owe a debt of pain to the outlanders, and a debt of failed protection to our people,” Glaukos continued, a storm of emotions flashing across his face, though none of it appeared in his tone as he spoke. “I can only repay them both by fighting, and the fight lies out there, beyond the wall.”
“Is it not enough to serve?” The question was flung like an accusation.
“Nothing will ever be enough,” Glaukos admitted with a quiet voice. “I can never undo the damage done to our city, our home.” He paused briefly before he was able to speak again. “All I can strive to do is crush the outlanders, so they will never be able to spill one drop of blood upon the heaths again.”
Hubert did not reply at first; he picked up his sword instead, staring at the naked blade. Sheathing it, he took a deep breath. “I have trained many boys over the years, turned them into men. I tried to instil not merely weapon skills but also courage, honour, and loyalty.”
“You have been the best master of arms in all the Realms,” Glaukos claimed.
“Still, some of my boys went astray. Some of my boys lost their way. Some of them…” The count’s voice had lost its earlier fury, and he seemed to stare into the distance. “My boy,” he reiterated.
“I am sorry that I have caused you disappointment,” the Blade told Hubert, who turned to look at his former student.
“I remember what you did in Tothmor,” the count spoke, his voice growing clearer. “You stayed behind to cover our escape. You did exactly as could be asked of any Blade. You sacrificed yourself to safeguard the ruler of our land.”
“It was my duty,” Glaukos mumbled.
Hubert exhaled deeply. “You made the right choice back then. I will trust your choice in this matter as well. I will speak on your behalf to the king.”
“My lord?” Surprise was evident in Glaukos’ voice.
“That is why you came to me, was it not?” Hubert’s voice had regained its usual brusque nature.
“I thought that if I could persuade you, I could persuade anyone,” the Blade admitted with an inkling of a smile.
“Rogue,” the count growled, though without sting in his tone. “The queen is not here, but the king’s permission should suffice. Meet me by his tent in half an hour. I have another matter to attend to first that will also require the king’s attention.”
“You have my gratitude, my lord.” With a relieved smile, Glaukos left the tent. Tying his sword by his waist, Hubert did the same shortly after.
In the tent he shared with his master, Baldwin was polishing boots. Making the leather shine, he hummed a tune from his old home of Vidrevi, but looked up as someone entered. “Count Hubert!” he exclaimed with a smile.
“Greetings, boy,” the old warrior spoke gruffly. “You are alone?”
“Sir William went to speak to the prince of Aquila. One last attempt at convincing him to join in an assault,” Baldwin revealed with a wry expression. “I can take you to his tent?” He began to put his boots and polish away.
“No need,” Hubert told him, sitting down. “I am not here to discuss strategy, but another matter entirely.” He cleared his throat. “I have an issue that plagues me.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” the squire expressed.
“I have no heir apparent to my title and more importantly, my duties. When I die, some distant relative will claim my title unless the queen can find a worthy successor and see it done without challenge.”
“Quite an issue,” Baldwin agreed.
“It is not merely politics,” Hubert strained to elaborate. “The first count of Esmarch was the brother of King Erhard. His greatest duty was to defend the eastern part of the realm. Ever since then, the counts of Esmarch, the blood of the northern kings have acted as the foremost defenders of Hæthiod.”
“Impressive,” Baldwin nodded, working hard at a particularly bothersome spot on the left boot.
“When Esmarch itself was no longer worth defending…” There was a lump in Hubert’s throat he had to clear before he could continue. “I became a Blade to the king. There must always be a count of Esmarch with the strength and honour to defend our realm and our monarch.”
“Of course, of course.”
“One of my duties is to ensure this legacy is upheld. Rather than leave matters to chance, I have decided to adopt an heir worthy of the task. Worthy to be the count of Esmarch.”
Baldwin looked up. “Oh! You have come to speak with Sir William!”
“I think William’s path lies elsewhere, with the Order. I have come to speak to you, Baldwin.” The old man met the boy’s eyes with a heavy countenance whose emotions were difficult to determine.
“Yes, boy, you.”
“But,” Baldwin stammered. “I am not even Baldwin of Hareik, not until I become a knight. I am Baldwin from Hareik.” The next words came with extreme hesitation. “My father’s name is not mine to speak.”
“Only makes it simpler,” Hubert pointed out.
“What about blood of the kings, the first count of Esmarch? Does that not matter?”
“One of my useless relatives will have a daughter for you to marry. It will make it harder to challenge the adoption, and the next generation of Esmarch will have as strong a claim as any.”
“Oh,” was all that Baldwin could reply.
“Well, what say you?”
“Sure. I mean, I accept,” the squire added haltingly.
“Let us put the matter before the king and find that scribe boy also. I should like to have some manner of document signed and sealed, in case one of us has to leave camp soon.”
“Very well.” With a smile, the boy put his tools aside, following Hubert outside to become Baldwin of Esmarch.
The grandest tent in the camp belonged to the king, and its interior was a match for its size. It possessed furniture more luxurious than anywhere else and an ample storage of wine. After his guests had departed, Leander sank down into a soft chair, adjusted a few pillows, and had his servant fill his cup. Once this task had been performed, the servant flittered around nervously instead of retreating as usual.
“What?” the king asked impatiently.
“Someone else seeks audience, Your Majesty,” came a nervous reply.
“Inform them that I have created a new tax. Adoptions, being released from an oath, and similar requests cost a bottle of spirits. Two if I do not like the person making the request,” Leander proclaimed.
“It is the minstrel, Your Majesty.”
“Let him in without paying.” Leander waved a hand. “Any wine he has will come from my stores anyway.”
“I would not refuse a glass,” Troy admitted with a grin, walking in and taking a seat.
“I have never known you to refuse,” the king claimed. “I thought tonight we should be drinking the tap from Tricaster.” He made some gesture towards his servant, who gave Troy a cup and filled it.
“A fine taste,” Troy proclaimed after having a sip.
“Gets the task done,” Leander added.
“Being in an army camp is a great deal more pleasant with abundant amounts of wine. This siege is a lot less dull than when we were quartered by the border to Ingmond. In winter, too,” Troy shivered.
“I cannot imagine what thought made these knights want to stay in camp during winter,” the king remarked.
“It did allow us to take Tothmor by surprise,” the bard pointed out.
“I suppose there is that.”
“I do not enjoy the hardships of such a life, but it was valuable. I found inspiration at last.”
“To make a song about yet another drakonian, causing trouble wherever he goes.” The disdain in Leander’s voice was obscured by his slurring, but present nonetheless. “I hope you will find other subjects for your singing soon.”
There was hesitation in Troy’s voice as he spoke again. “I wanted to speak with you about that.”
“Something on your mind?”
“There is rumour that the Order is planning a campaign beyond the wall, into the Reach.”
“Best of luck to them,” Leander snorted. “It sounds like a fool’s errand to me, but if they are going to kill outlanders, I will not stand in their way.”
“I thought I should go with them.”
Leander sat upright, blinking a few times. “You? Into the Reach? Armed with a lute?”
“I will be travelling with an army,” Troy defended himself. “First I intend to follow Sir Adalbrand to Plenmont.”
“Why?” Leander’s voice overflowed with disbelief. “What good will that do you?”
“I can see my mother’s homeland,” Troy offered, sounding casual. “Besides, it is more about staying close to the lieutenant.”
“Is he your patron now? Are you casting my friendship aside in favour of this arrogant, pompous fool?”
“I stayed with Sir William and the knights those months ago because I thought it would give me stories, something worth singing about,” Troy began to explain. “I was right. You weren’t at the battle of Polisals, you didn’t see.”
“See what? Men butchering each other, and someone else reaping the glory?”
“It was a battle for our home, Leander, and it was almost lost.” Troy’s eyes lost focus as memories surfaced. “In that moment, he did not panic. He saw what had to be done and did it without hesitation, without concern for himself.”
“And earned himself many a bootlicker,” Leander added scornfully.
“He is no hound for glory,” Troy argued. “I know such men, I’ve met Count Hubert. Sir Adalbrand, he fought because he had to. He charged the enemy headlong, killing their captain and turning the tide of battle. No man could watch that and remain unmoved.”
“It certainly left an impression on you.” The king’s voice was sullen.
“He is not just a knight or some warrior. He is a leader of men, and he will lead us beyond the wall as the first captain to ever do so since it was built,” the bard argued.
“A leader of men,” Leander repeated. “Unlike me.”
“I did not say that,” Troy hastily continued. “But my craft demands I follow him. I must go where the songs are made,” he added, “that I may be the one who makes them.”
The king gave a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Enough. I am tired of listening to people. Drink your wine.” Troy dutifully did so.
Days passed with both Order commanders preparing to leave, ensuring that the siege would continue in their absence and planning for contingencies. Nonetheless, an unexpected event occurred when a convoy of provisions arrived from Florentia, bringing the post with it. Most were scrolls rolled together without any name written as recipient, as they were military dispatches intended for the commanders and always delivered to Brand, but among the scrolls was an actual letter, addressed to him. Not only that, it bore the seal of the King’s Quill upon the strings that tied it together, guaranteeing its origin and that it had not been opened beforehand. With curiosity marked on his face, Brand broke the seal and read the contents within.
Soon after, Brand sought out William and approached his captain while waving the letter in his hand. “The Adalthing is convening outside of time,” he informed the other knight.
“Strange,” William frowned. “Does it say why?”
“The noble prisoners from Isarn are mentioned, but more importantly, so is our campaign. The summons does not go into detail,” Brand explained, opening the letter to glance at it. “It merely mentions that it is to be discussed. My guess is that with our impending victory, they wish to declare it at an end. Use our troops and resources towards defeating Jarl Isarn’s rebellion for good.”
“Quite the stone before our plough,” William muttered concerned.
“I should attend. I will explain the opportunity we have and convince the Adalthing to support our endeavours.”
“And if you cannot?”
“The Adalthing does not have direct control of the Order. The noblemen can refuse to support us, send us neither men nor food, but if they attempt to order us home, we simply ignore them. We still have allies in Korndale and Hæthiod to supply us,” Brand considered.
“Launching an invasion without support from Adalrik…” Doubt tinged the captain’s voice. “It seems foolhardy.”
“We will both go to Middanhal and ensure it does not come to pass,” Brand declared confidently. “We will seek allies wherever they may be found. I have faith in our endeavour still.”
“You always have faith, which leads you to always taking risks,” William pointed out. “I worry about the day when your luck finally runs out.”
“I will give you ample warning ahead of time,” Brand smiled. “The Adalthing convenes in three weeks. If we are to reach Middanhal in time, we must make haste.”
To this, William agreed. The next day, the captain and the lieutenant left the siege of Lakon, journeying from Hæthiod towards the capital of Adalrik.