94. Knives at Night
Knives at Night
“I don’t believe you!” Egil exclaimed.
“I swear on my ring,” Jorund asserted. “They make it from snails.”
“You’re lying,” Kate insisted. “I’ve seen snails. They’re gross and slimy, but not purple.”
The Dwarf let his bellowing laughter sound. “Obviously they are not like our snails, or every peasant would dye his clothing purple! These snails live only on the coast of the Mydlonde Sea, where it is far warmer than here.”
“But I don’t understand.” Egil scratched his head. “How do you get dye out of a snail?”
“It’s a long and difficult process, and they don’t tell outsiders about it lest their secrets get stolen,” Jorund confided in them. The two youths looked downtrodden upon hearing this, making him quickly continue. “But I once spied the snail gatherers at work. It was a strange sight to behold!”
“Tell us more,” Kate entreated.
“As you wish,” the Dwarf granted graciously. “See, in the city of Labdah, they used to gather the snails and crush their shells, making a giant stew of the whole thing,” he described. “Of course, this soon turned against them. You can’t milk the cow you kill.”
“Of course,” Kate nodded sagely.
“So the smartest people in Labdah left the city and founded a new one called Surru, in the other end of the inland sea. A place still teeming with the little slugs,” he continued. “To avoid repeating the mistake, they keep the snails alive and simply prod them. It provokes the snail to cover itself in nasty, stinking slime, repelling any predator. It would work perfectly except that disgusting slime has a nice, purple tint,” Jorund explained. “So you’ll see hundreds of people walking up and down the coast, prodding the snails and gathering up their muck. You get much less than by the old method, but it keeps the snail alive to be milked next year.” He punctuated his words by pretending his water skin was a slug leaving its slime all over Kate, who shrieked and moved away while Egil laughed.
“Jorund, we are almost there,” Gawad informed his friend and nodded towards the road ahead. In the distance rose Castle Grenwold as an imposing sight, dominating the surrounding hills by being situated on the tallest. The landscape was lush, allowing for grazing of animals, but the immediate area around the castle was desolate; neither man nor beast were found. Where that no man’s land ended, the palisade works could be found, encircling the besieged fortress. A distance further from the castle was the siege camp itself. It resembled a typical army camp except for the siege crafts assembled.
“Sure,” the Dwarf responded to his friend. “Time to get back into line,” he told Kate and Egil with a smile. “Maybe we’ll see each other inside camp, yah?”
“I hope so!” Kate replied eagerly while Egil nodded. Following his comrade, Jorund hurried to find his place and march with the other Red Hawks into camp.
While the soldiers got settled in, Konstans moved straight to the captain’s tent. He was followed by Hardmar, who kept a close eye on him; two of the prince’s thanes stuck close by as well. The captain was sitting in a chair, having idle conversation with some of his men, when the small party of noblemen strode in. Immediately, the commander rose up and greeted them with a bow. “Lord Konstans, Prince Hardmar,” he spoke. “You arrived sooner than expected.”
“We made good time on the march,” Konstans replied. “How goes the siege? You do not seem particularly burdened.”
“There have been the occasional sorties and skirmishes,” the captain told him. “The defenders were mostly active when we first arrived, seeking to disrupt our attempts to set up the siege. That ended with the completion of the palisades. We have sent terms of surrender but heard nothing back.”
“What terms did you offer?”
“Surrender within two months if they are not relieved. Our best guess is their food stores should be depleted by then.”
“Fine,” Konstans assented. “I am here for another reason.”
“I see. The missive made no mention of this,” the captain spoke cautiously.
“We are not in the habit of spreading secrets by letter,” Hardmar interjected with an overbearing manner.
“Of course, Your Highness,” the Red Hawk replied, looking at the prince. “May I enquire why you have come?”
“We will be conducting negotiations with the rebels,” Hardmar sniffed. “As they have already proven themselves dishonourable men, we will also be bringing the army.”
“What we need from you, captain,” Konstans now interrupted, “is to prepare the continuation of the siege with as few men as needed, so that the remainder may march with us.”
“Of course,” the Hawk nodded. “The castle is lightly defended. I think one thousand men should be sufficient to maintain the watch. I do not imagine there is any threat of a relief force assisting the besieged if the Isarn army travels to negotiate with you – or ambush you, as you suspect.”
“Indeed,” Konstans agreed.
“If the castle is lightly defended,” Hardmar spoke with an almost irate voice, “why have you not taken it yet?”
“A castle is designed for defence, even by a small garrison,” the captain explained as if to a small child. “If we storm it, we will have losses. You need only give the order, of course, as long as you are willing to pay the extra sum we are owed for such an attempt as per our written agreement.” He looked at Konstans.
“No need, captain,” the dragonlord replied. “Have the army ready to march out by tomorrow, and that will be all.”
“Very well, my lord,” came the obedient answer. Hardmar did not speak again but restricted himself to an angry stare before storming away, followed by his thanes.
Along with the soldiers dispersing to find beds for the night, the provisions train and its many unarmed attendants also spread out to seek a place to lay their head. One of these, a driver for a cart full of water barrels, left the wagon with no further regard and moved quickly into the camp. The shape, drawing little attention, moved through the tents until finding one with a specific shield upon a pole outside; the shield had an insignia of a tree upon it.
Stepping inside Richard of Alwood’s tent, the driver was immediately noticed by the knight. “What is this?” he spoke brusquely. “Announce yourself!”
“Sir Richard,” Holwyn spoke with a quick grin, letting her hood fall down.
“Holwyn,” he exclaimed astounded. “Does this mean Theodoric is recalling me? He knows how much I hate sieges,” he spoke surly. “I should never have agreed to act as his reeve here.”
“In a manner,” she replied. “You are to leave camp with me, but leave your belongings. You need only your weapons, armour. And your horse,” Holwyn added. “I suppose it would look odd if you left on foot. If anyone asks, make an excuse. Say that you are exercising your steed or scouting the area, but do not give the real reason why you are leaving.”
“I have no idea what that reason might be,” Richard pointed out.
“Good. See you outside of camp,” she told him and swiftly left.
A few miles south, concealed among the hills and the few trees remaining after the besieging army had chopped most of them, a band of warriors stood restlessly. They made no idle conversation or engaged themselves in any other pursuits to pass the time except scouting north towards the camp. They wore dull cloaks and helmets concealing their faces and any insignias upon their clothing. Their leader was Theodoric.
As sunset approached, Holwyn and Richard reached the group. “Theodoric?” the margrave questioned. “What is the meaning of all this?”
The jarl looked at his vassal. “Theodwyn is dead,” he declared tonelessly. “Murdered by someone in that camp.”
Richard’s face began to turn red with boiling rage. “Who?” he growled, his right hand grabbing hold of his sword hilt.
“One of the kingthanes. Our prince has elevated a new brood of brutes to this rank, and one of them pushed her from the walls to her death.”
“Which of them? I will carve him into pieces,” Richard swore.
“I cannot know for sure. But I accuse the prince of being behind this, and so his misdeed falls upon all of his sworn men. All of them are guilty,” the jarl proclaimed with his monotone voice.
“Very well,” Richard accepted. “I will challenge each of them and cut my way through them all.”
“Even you would not last through twenty duels,” Holwyn inserted. “It must be done another way.”
“How?” asked the knight.
Holwyn pulled out red surcoats from bags lying on the ground. They had the black swords of Isarn upon them. “We take our revenge the old way, the true way.” Removing her cloak, she began to put one of the uniforms on. Meanwhile, the other warriors discarded their own cloaks, revealing them to be already dressed in the tabards of the north-western jarldom.
Richard’s face expressed his doubt. “This is not right, Theodoric. Kill the bastards, yes, but under our own colours. Our vengeance is just. We have no need to hide it.”
“If we do that, we will be denounced as traitors and it will be the end. They will besiege Cragstan, and we will all fall,” Theodoric retorted. “Besides, if the culprit escapes justice tonight, I need to be free to see vengeance completed.”
“This is not right,” Richard reiterated. “I have never fought under any colours but my own and the Order’s.”
“This is for Theodwyn,” Theodoric impressed upon him, staring down at the shorter knight. “Her blood screams to me from the ground. Every single person involved in her death must pay, and this is the way to ensure it.”
The knight exhaled. “Very well,” Richard relented with reluctant voice. “For Theodwyn. But do not ask this of me again.”
“I will not,” Theodoric promised. He watched as the knight removed his own surcoat with help from Holwyn and donned the emblem of Isarn.
“Let us be on our way,” the knight demanded brusquely. “I have no wish to wear this attire longer than necessary.”
Theodoric nodded in approval, and the small band set into motion except for himself and Holwyn. “You have scouted the camp?” he asked quietly of her.
“Yes, milord. I know where to strike.” She hesitated slightly. “What of the prince?”
“We kill his protectors tonight, including the hand that slew my sister. At some point, he must travel back to Middanhal. Spare him until then,” Theodoric exclaimed with sudden savagery, “that my own hand may plunge the knife into him! When he is isolated and weakened, we strike.”
“Yes, milord,” Holwyn replied, put on a helmet and hurried after the other warriors. The jarl remained behind, watching them disappear into the night.
As darkness fell, the soldiers in camp had no reason to suspect this night would differ significantly from the previous. The defenders of the castle had not attempted any raids in weeks, being too few to risk losses in skirmishes. With the reinforcements, the camp seemed safer than ever. It did not have its own stockade, as the available wood had been spent on encircling the castle or on siege engines, but deep ditches were dug to prevent cavalry from riding through, and the Hawks maintained enough scouts to spot any army of sufficient size to act as a relief force for the besieged. Their vigilance did not allow them to notice a band of warriors counting only forty.
In the dark, nothing gave away their position until the first handful were upon the sentries. Several Hawks went down within moments, though they managed to fulfil their duty and cry out for their brethren to take up arms. Rather than other Hawks, the alarm was first heard by the kingthanes; the attackers were entering camp close to where the prince had chosen to raise his tent for the night. Thus, it came to battle between the thanes of Hardling and the thanes of Theodstan, neither side showing any leniency but letting the sword rule freely.
Ulfrik was in the midst of the fighting, wielding his fearsome axe to great effect. Battling men wearing his former master’s emblem did not seem to inhibit his lust for blood or slow the swing of his weapon. He felled one opponent with a roar and turned towards the next, a short warrior wielding only a sword. The blade was bloodied; Richard had already claimed his own victories. As the two men locked eyes, both charged the other.
Ulfrik let his axe fly with a powerful blow against Richard’s midsection, impossible to parry and strong enough to bite deep into his flesh. The disguised knight crouched as he sprinted, rolling underneath the axe swing and in the position to stab his sword up into Ulfrik’s groin. The latter gave a terrible scream, dropping his weapon. As Richard rose with fury in his eyes, pulling his sword out, he slashed the blade into the side of Ulfrik’s neck. Withdrawing the sword, blood poured out, and the thane sank mortally wounded to the ground.
A maelstrom of mayhem appeared across the camp. The attackers were not concentrated in one place; some had spread out along the edge of the encampment, solely to cause chaos. Making use of what remained of cooking fires, they set tents ablaze and made it impossible for the defenders to discern what was truly happening. The Hawks grabbed their weapons and rallied, but in most places, there were none to fight other than the flames quickly spreading, and they were forced to discard weapons and use water or wet blankets to combat the fire.
With the flames keeping the Hawks occupied along with the general confusion, none came to the kingthanes’ aid. Nearly equal in number to their enemies, the fighting was vicious and closely matched. Hardmar was not aware of this or anything else happening in camp; he was standing inside his tent, furthest from the entrance, with one of his guards in front of him. The only knowledge available to him was the sounds of fighting and men dying in close vicinity.
A man entered the tent quickly, and the thane nearly fell upon him with a drawn sword. “Peace!” exclaimed Konstans, showing his empty hands. “It is only me!” The thane relaxed slightly, but kept his weapons ready.
“What are you doing here?” Hardmar questioned.
“There is fighting all over camp,” the dragonlord explained. “I came here to help defend my prince.”
“As if I would believe that,” Hardmar sneered.
Konstans hesitated. “I have no thanes with me,” he admitted. “Unlike you, my prince.”
“You came to hide,” the youth declared with a contemptuous smile. It quickly faded as screams pierced the air.
“If need be, I will defend us both,” the nobleman claimed. He looked at the thane. “Your brothers are dying out there. Why are you in here?”
“Unlike you, his place is here,” Hardmar claimed with a shrill voice. His remark was undercut by the sounds of weapons clashing and more men dying.
“Of course, my prince,” Konstans assented subserviently.
“If you are so concerned, you may go fight yourself,” Hardmar declared with his customary sneer and picked up a cup, emptying it.
“My apologies for speaking out of turn, my prince. Allow me,” Konstans spoke with a servile voice, picking up a bottle. “As for you,” he said to the remaining thane, “make yourself useful and look outside. Tell us what you see.”
The warrior did as instructed, gazing outside. “I see Isarn soldiers, several of them. They’re fighting our boys. I think we are pushing them back.”
As the thane turned his back on the noblemen, Konstans poured the wine for Hardmar’s cup. Placing the bottle on the nearby table, Konstans waited until the prince began to drink; then he drew his knife and plunged it into Hardmar’s neck.
Blood and wine filling his throat, the prince was unable to make any sound. He fell towards the ground, but by then, Konstans had already withdrawn his knife, taken the four steps towards the unsuspecting thane, and done the same to him.
Cutting the strings that held the tent opening drawn back, Konstans closed the tent and concealed the sight within. He used his knife several times more on both bodies inside, mutilating them to make it seem like they suffered many wounds. Looking at the small candle that illuminated the tent, he reached out to tip it over. Slowly at first, then eagerly, the flames began to consume everything they touched.
Using his knife for the last time, Konstans cut open an escape path in the back of the tent. The fires illuminated him briefly as he stepped out into the darkness before he was gone.
When the attack began, Kate had been sleeping underneath a cart serving as an improvised shelter. Looking out from between the wheels, she could see distant fires accompanied by great noise, but there was no sign of men actually fighting near her. Gathering her courage, she crawled out and headed towards where Egil had found his place to rest for the night. Occasionally, a Hawk hurried past her, but most people in this part of camp were not soldiers, but craftsmen or labourers, and they kept themselves hidden.
Reaching her friend, Kate found him packing his belongings together. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
He turned around startled. “Don’t sneak up on me!” he chided her. “I am running away.”
“Are you mad?”
“This camp is not safe,” Egil told her. “There will be more fighting. Besides,” he added, “I don’t want to be the prince’s prisoner. I am leaving.”
Kate bit her lip. “Fine. But I bet you didn’t prepare any food. I know where it’s stored. We’ll get some and go.”
“You shouldn’t come,” Egil told her. “It’s dangerous where I am going.”
“So is this camp. You just said that,” Kate reminded him with raised eyebrows. “Now come on, let’s not waste time!”
“If you’re sure. Let’s go,” Egil assented, and together, the scribe and kitchen girl made their flight.