9. The Long Watch
The Long Watch
Not long after the Adalthing had assembled in Middanhal and while Ælfwine and Egil were reaching the northern parts of Heohlond, a pair of soldiers were patrolling the eastern Langstan between two watchtowers. This mighty line of fortifications began at the Eylonde Sea in the west and ran along the entire southern border of the realms of the Adalmearc until it reached Hæthiod in the east. Here, the wall ran north until it reached the Weolcan Mountains, thus protecting all of Hæthiod’s southern and eastern borders. Watchtowers were erected a mile apart with beacons on top to send signals.
The Langstan had been built in ancient times, protecting against raiders and unsavoury creatures roaming the Reach that lay beyond. Manning the Langstan was one of the primary duties of the Order, and every watchtower had a knight and a garrison attached to it, at least ideally so. Being pressed for men and resources, there were several towers manned by less than half the soldiers intended, and fewer still had knights in command. Yet the long watch had to be kept, every night and all through the night, so the two soldiers dutifully left their own tower and began walking south towards the next.
They moved at a leisurely pace with torches in one hand and a spear in the other. “This wind’s sharper than my wife’s tongue,” grumbled one of them.
“You shouldn’t have gambled your cloak away,” the other soldier admonished him. “It’s your own fault.”
“What else is there to do but play dice?” complained the cloak-less man. “Gods, I hate wall duty even if there’s extra pay.”
“How many years have you got left?”
“Five,” he sighed. “You?”
“Two. But I might take another seven years afterwards,” said the soldier who still had his cloak.
“You’re mad, Mark,” came a laughter. “What inferno are you fleeing from that fourteen years at the Langstan are preferable?”
“Not running,” came the muttered reply. “But my sister and her children have good use for the silver.”
“Better man than me,” snorted his companion, who held his hand with the spear close to his torch for warmth.
“You’ll end up setting your spear on fire,” warned Mark as they by necessity slowed their pace so the other soldier could balance his hands holding torch and spear.
“Nonsense,” the soldier brushed him off.
“Sir Jerome will flog your hide if you lose your weapon,” Mark said.
“Given what I’ve lost in coin to the good knight, he should look on me with mercy,” came the surly reply. “Most of my pay end up in his pocket.”
“If nothing else, you’ll pay for replacing the spear.”
This caused Mark’s companion to jerk the spear and his hand away from the torch. “You’re right,” he mumbled. “Better not risk it.”
“A clever decision, Travis,” Mark said gently and almost without derision in his voice.
“Let’s pick up the pace and get out of this blasted cold,” Travis grumbled. It was past midnight, and they were surrounded by black, though in the far distance, they saw flickering torches from the watchtower ahead. About halfway between the towers they would meet the patrol from the other garrison, and both pairs of soldiers would return to their own tower with the news that all was well; soon after, a new patrol would be sent out. “There’s the old birch tree,” Travis remarked. On their side of the wall grew a lone tree, which the soldiers used as a mark for how far they had walked on their patrol. “If we’re already here, the other patrol’s being lazy.”
“Something’s odd,” Mark muttered.
“I don’t see the torches of the other patrol.”
“Isn’t it those straight ahead?”
“Too far away,” Mark shook his head. “It’s the torch by the beacon on the other tower.”
“That’s odd,” Travis said. “Could they have gone outside without?”
“I suppose,” Mark said doubtfully. “Sounds strange though.”
Before Travis could say anything further, he stumbled and nearly fell over. “What the blazes was that?” he cursed, and they both leaned down. The wall on which they walked was ten feet wide, and so it could easily accommodate both of them walking side by side; however, on the side of the wall nearest to the Reach, they found a large shape that had caused Travis to stumble. Mark brought his torch down close while Travis grabbed the object. As he pulled it around, they both saw it was the body of an Order soldier.
Immediately, both soldiers crouched low, making themselves less conspicuous. “An arrow,” Travis pointed out. “Wait, several. Poor soul didn’t even have time to scream a warning. You think his mate made it back to their tower?”
“I doubt it,” Mark replied. “We would have heard something. He was probably walking on the inner side and fell down from the wall as he was shot,” Mark guessed, glancing over the inner edge of the wall. There was a thirty-foot drop to the ground, and the darkness completely concealed any bodies that might have fallen.
“I suppose so,” Mark said hesitantly. “Just odd. Never heard of them crossing this far south, they usually do it up north by the mountains.” Both of them glanced around, but in the darkness, nothing was visible to them.
“They must have put out the torches and moved on. Damn blackboots are already inland.”
“His body is not yet cold, though,” Mark pointed out. “They cannot be far. We must warn the towers, send out search parties.”
“I’ll take the south one, you go back,” Travis said, straightening up. “They’ll probably be heading –” He was cut short by an arrow that ingrained itself into his skull. As he fell down next to the other corpse, Mark had clear vision of the angle that the arrow had struck Travis with. It had not come from the ground east or west of the fortifications, but directly south; their enemy was still on the wall.
Dropping his torch that made him a target and keeping only his spear, Mark ran north and back towards his own tower. “To arms, to arms!” he yelled while the air whistled with arrows around him. “We’re under attack, to arms!” He repeated his cry of warning until he was out of breath and running confiscated all remaining energy. Ahead of him was the faint light from the torch beside the beacon on top of his watchtower; behind him, no further arrows came.
Reaching the tower, there was a glow of light coming from behind the door where the rest of the soldiers from Mark’s garrison were on duty. Commotion could be heard as Mark shouted yet again. The door swung open, and death cries issued from inside. A warrior from the Reach, dressed in the dark leather and cloth that they employed on their raids, stepped out. The soldier of the Order did not hesitate but ran his spear straight forward and buried it in the outlander, who fell backwards. Mark let go of the spear and instead leapt up the stone ladder carved into the side of the tower.
On the flat roof of the watchtower was laid wood for a large fire. A torch hung burning in a ring by the edge of the tower so fire was always available to light the wood. However, next to the torch stood another outlander. Unlike the raiders, he was clad in dark steel, and he seemed to melt into the surrounding darkness and the shadows cast by the flickering light. Only his eyes burned yellow. In his hands, he held a long, vicious blade. Mark drew his own short sword, attacking and trying to reach the torch.
The outlander lashed out and struck Mark’s blade out of his hand with terrible strength. Then he gave a cruel smile at seeing the unarmed man in front of him, so desperate to reach the torch. As Mark stepped forward once again, it was all too easy to run the blade through the Order soldier. Now it was Mark’s turn to smile with blood running down from his mouth. With one hand, he held onto the hilt of the sword that was gutting him; with the other hand, he reached out and barely managed to close his fingers around the torch. Before the outlander could stop him, he pulled it out of the ring and threw it over their heads. It landed on the oil-soaked firewood and ignited it. His deed done, Mark sank to the ground. The last that his eyes beheld was the beacon being lit; this meant that the beacon of the next watchtower would be lit, and the next beacon, and the next, passing on the message from the Langstan. The long watch had been broken.