95. The Wolves of Isarn
The Wolves of Isarn
As morning came, the Hawks surveyed the damage. As it turned out, it was limited. Few of their people had been killed or even injured; in fact, most of them had not seen any fighting. Only the kingthanes had suffered; fifteen of their number had been slain or grievously wounded. None of the attackers were found among the dead; either they had survived unscathed or been mindful to retrieve their dead upon their retreat.
The assault had achieved its purpose nonetheless, for it became clear that their target had been the prince. His tent had burned down, and when the remaining kingthanes had discovered the flames, they had braved the fire to rescue Hardmar, only to find him dead. They had saved his body and that of the nearby thane’s from the flames, which was all the aid they could give. Both the prince and the thane bore many injuries, suggesting they had been overwhelmed. Konstans had been among the first to arrive, examining the slain and explaining all this to the thanes and Hawks close by.
“I will bring the news to Middanhal myself,” the dragonlord declared. “The kingthanes may follow at their own pace to bring the dead home. However, this dastardly attack by cowards too fearful to face us in daylight must be avenged. Captain,” he continued, looking at the leader of the Red Hawks, “search the area. No doubt the savages that serve in Isarn’s army will be nearby. Find them all and eradicate them,” he commanded.
“Yes, milord,” the captain promised. He wasted no time organising this, sending out scouts and arraying soldiers into skirmishing bands; soon, the Hawks were scouring the countryside while Konstans rode swiftly back to the capital, bearing news that death had befallen yet another heir.
Less than twenty miles away, the army of Isarn lay encamped. Exercising caution, they had outriders scouting the area; they returned with reports of being attacked by Red Hawks. Soon, it seemed evident to the captains of Isarn that as feared. These negotiations were simply a ruse to lure them into battle.
The Hawk scouts, meanwhile, returned eagerly with news that a force of Isarn soldiers had marched close to their own camp, measuring some two thousand in strength. The captain of the mercenaries summoned his lieutenants for a war council. With an army ten thousand strong, the Hawks did not fear an open attack by a force so inferior in numbers; the danger, as some pointed out, was in continued nightly raids destroying their supplies and making it untenable to maintain the siege. Or, another argued, if this relief force was allowed to break through the palisades and reinforce the defenders of Castle Grenwold with both men and provisions, it could prolong the siege greatly. As their contract with Jarl Vale stated, letting an enemy significantly reinforce a besieged castle meant they forfeited a great deal of the pay owed, and their future pay for continuing the siege would be reduced. While the Hawks did not fear an attack against their main army, it was impossible to protect the palisade works everywhere at all times against the Isarn force present in the field.
The captain considered and made his decision, marching out with more than five thousand Hawks to punish Isarn for approaching so close. It took them an hour’s march to reach their enemy; by then, it was late afternoon. Most commanders would consider it too late in the day to start a battle, but several things spoke in favour of the Hawks fighting now. They were far more numerous, allowing them to envelop the Isarn ranks as soon as battle began. The terrain was flat, affording no advantage to the enemy; although there were hills directly west of the field, the Isarn army had not had time to array themselves upon it, which would have significantly strengthened their position.
If battle was not fought today, the Isarn army might retreat out of reach or be allowed to take formation upon the hills; either of these possibilities would make it far more difficult to uphold the siege of Castle Grenwold. With these arguments presented, the captain of the Hawks acquiesced to his battle-thirsty lieutenants and gave the order to attack.
Once it became clear that fighting was inevitable, both sides presented themselves in battle lines and approached their enemy. Neither had cavalry to speak of nor archers, making this an engagement of infantry alone. The Hawks in their dark green coats were a terrible sight as their numbers filled the horizon; their ranks were far deeper than Isarn’s, yet their lines easily extended beyond their opponent’s to either side. With hope of victory dim, Athelstan commanded his men to storm forward in an attempt to breach the Hawks’ centre; could this be achieved, the near certain defeat might be avoided.
Led by Isenhart and Athelstan themselves, the men of Isarn followed with roaring battle lust into the lines of the Hawks. With the jarl, his brother, and his thanes spearheading the charge, it was a formidable fighting force consisting of the best warriors in the jarldom.
The ranks of the Hawks proved too deep. Despite their best efforts, Isarn could not punch through. The enemy captain, acutely aware of this danger, sent his reserves to reinforce his centre, ensuring that the lines would not break. Slowly, Isenhart and his men were pressed back. Their Nordsteel armour served them well to diminish the losses inflicted upon them, but nothing could protect against overwhelming numbers.
Sunset was only a few hours away when there was a sudden turn. From the west, thousands of Isarn troops rushed forward into battle, led by Athelbold and Eumund. In this moment, Athelstan’s strategy became clear. He had used half his forces as bait, luring the Hawks into battle. His army seemed under strength and caught on flat terrain; easy to deal with if done so now, but promising to be nuisance if allowed to escape and remain in the region. In their eagerness to fight, the Hawks had not scouted the area thoroughly, and they fell prey to the soldiers that had been hiding behind the western hills.
The Hawks’ superior numbers were for naught. The Isarn reinforcements hit them in the flank, and their own reserves had already been spent to support their centre. Their flank disintegrated under the attack. Soon, it became apparent that defeat was inevitable. As their right flank fell apart, their captain ordered a retreat of the remaining forces.
The setting sun saved what was left of the Hawks; with darkness falling, Athelstan ceased any pursuit of the fleeing enemy. It would too easily descend into disorder, making it man against man rather than army against army, and the Hawks were still near equal in numbers despite their losses. A chaotic chase might turn against Isarn, causing them to suffer as many dead as they might inflict.
Even though the Hawks were allowed to flee, their defeat was indisputable. As his men cheered, Athelstan stood on the bloodstained grass under fallen bodies and fallen arms, victor of yet another battlefield.
Late in the night, the Isarn army returned to its camp, bringing wounded and what spoils of war could be taken with them. Some of the soldiers remained at the battlefield, keeping watch and protecting the defensive position upon the hills to deter any further fighting while the northerners were unready; Athelbold and Eumund stayed behind to command, whereas Isenhart and Athelstan returned to camp.
The latter seemed unburdened, his reputation restored. The jarl was pensive, almost brooding in the dark. As they strode into the middle of camp, Gerhard came running out to meet them, followed by Jerome. “What happened?” asked the young prince. “How did it come to battle? Why did you not negotiate?”
“Lord Konstans had other plans, it seems,” Athelstan remarked. “Prince Gerhard, I fear you must consider yourself our prisoner for the time being. While I have not forgotten that you secured our release –”
“As I suspected from the start, this was all a trap,” Isenhart interrupted. “There is only one reward.” He drew his sword.
“Isenhart!” Athelstan called out sharply, reaching out for his brother, but in vain. Before anyone could stop the jarl, he plunged his blade into Gerhard’s chest. Blood sprung forth like a fountain, and the prince lay dead within moments. Isenhart turned his eyes on Jerome. “Brother,” Athelstan shouted, finally reaching him to place a hand on his arm. “We will need a messenger to tell Middanhal their devious plans failed them,” he explained, gesturing with his head towards the dead prince. “Let it be this man,” he added, now motioning towards Jerome, “who freed your sons from prison.”
Contempt was on Isenhart’s face, but he finally relented, lowering his sword. “This once. Let him never appear in my sight again.”
“Of course,” Athelstan promised.
As the jarl stalked away, Jerome fell on his feet before Athelstan. “Thank you, milord,” he stammered.
“This was unfortunate,” Athelstan admitted, glancing at Gerhard’s corpse. “I do not wish it said that the sons of Isarn are ungrateful or repay kindness with death. You saved our lives, and so yours is safe. But this I do wish to be said,” Athelstan continued. “Do not treat wolves like sheep. Your masters have tasted the fangs of Isarn today. They will so again. Relay that message to the men you serve.”
“Yes, milord,” Jerome agreed anxiously, standing up. Soon after, he was escorted out of the camp to make his way south.