47. Wolf and Lion
Wolf and Lion
After the battle of Bradon, the Order army did not give pursuit. Middanhal was lightly defended in their absence, and the agreement had been to avoid prolonging this state. While they might chase the fleeing Isarn soldiers all the way to Silfrisarn, they were not equipped for a siege. They had bought themselves time and kept their northern gate open, allowing for further reinforcements from Theodstan; now they could also devote their full attention on the South and the true danger, incarnate in the commander Athelstan.
Even so, the Order army could not immediately return; with the battle done, there were bodies to burn, weapons to collect, and a watch had to be set to ensure the defeated Isarn army did not make a surprise return. While the bulk of the army remained to carry out these duties, Brand took the vanguard of the army and marched towards the capital without delay.
Spirits were high among the soldiers as could be expected after defeating their enemy, and the journey back to Middanhal seemed to pass by without effort. None of them expected what news awaited them as the city came in sight.
At the time of the battle of Bradon, the garrison at Middanhal had prepared themselves to defend the city against Konstantine and the army of Vale. The defenders had manned the towers and fortifications, readied themselves against arrows, fire, stones, siege towers, and what else might be thrown against them. Theobald had limped around the gatehouse while Fionn had been marching up and down the walls impatiently; however, nothing happened.
No assault was commenced; not a single arrow was let loose. In fact, those with the sharpest eyes looked towards the siege camp and its palisades and found no sign of life. Fionn returned to the gatehouse to confer with Theobald, and they had a hushed exchange, discussing what this meant. Finally, one of the longbowmen called out and gained their attention; the archers had been left to defend the city rather than march with Richard and Brand to battle. “Captain,” the heathman spoke. “I see movement by the stockades.”
The two knights marched over to the parapet and strained their eyes, but neither man was able to discern anything with certainty. “What do you see?” the captain asked the keen-eyed longbowman. “Are they preparing an attack?”
“Hard to tell, milord. There is one thing I can determine, but I am not sure what to make of it,” the archer related.
“Well, speak,” Fionn commanded gruffly.
“From what I can tell,” the soldier spoke hesitantly, “they are not wearing red and gold. I see black colour on their red surcoats.”
Theobald and Fionn exchanged looks. “Athelstan,” the latter finally said, speaking the name as a premonition or a curse.
Eventually the defenders of Middanhal could piece the story together. Athelstan had not remained in the South while Vale moved their armies to assault the capital; either he had guessed their intent or, just as likely, discovered their troop movements. Athelstan’s army had marched north and conducted a raid on the siege camp, driving Konstantine’s army on the retreat. They had been forced to leave their materials behind, however. All of it had fallen into Athelstan’s hands, including all siege machinery, catapults, towers, ladders, and more.
It did not take long for Athelstan to understand the situation either; while his original intention might have been to raise the siege of Middanhal, thinking it was still under his nephew’s control, the truth of the matter soon dawned upon him. Within hours, the defenders could witness Isarn soldiers man the palisades and prepare the siege machinery. The garrison was made to suffer some probing attacks from catapults hurling stones against the wall as a test to measure length and arch of the shots made.
The next day, the first real assault commenced. It did not involve the siege towers; they would not have been useful against the walls of Middanhal. The Vale engineers had not known this when constructing them, but the defences of the capital had been fortified against such engines. The landscape sloped upwards, requiring enormous strength to push the towers forward; ditches had been dug that furthermore made the terrain uneven. The wheels upon any approaching siege towers would thus become stuck. All of this was known to Athelstan, however.
Therefore, when the Isarn army attacked, they did so with siege ladders to scale the outer walls while catapults bombarded the defenders. Neither side had many archers to speak of, but the garrison did have the contingent of longbowmen conscripted for the campaign in Hæthiod, and their arrows struck with gruesome effect. While in many places the Isarn soldiers managed to gain a foothold on the outer walls, it was always costly since the defenders could continue to strike from their higher position on the inner walls and towers.
After three hours, Athelstan signalled a retreat. It was not an admission of defeat; his men pulled back in good order, in some places recovering their ladders and bringing them back to camp. He had kept his most experienced troops back and gained valuable insight as to the positions of the garrison and its weaknesses.
On the morrow, another assault followed in the same vein as the day before; both sides lost men and neither gained a clear advantage. The original garrison of five hundred was swiftly dwindling, however; a little over half remained to man the extensive fortifications while Athelstan, the defenders presumed, still had many thousand at his disposal. Furthermore, his men had been through combat before, whereas the majority of the defenders were fresh recruits and now had their first taste of battle; this above all meant that the garrison had high casualties, losing soldiers who had neither skill nor knowledge to survive the fighting.
On the third day of the siege, Athelstan was ready. He used the two siege towers constructed by the Vale army by having one moved to the far east and the other to the far west; while they could never reach the walls and become an actual threat, the defenders feared his stratagems to such a degree, they felt compelled to respond. Forces were pulled from the central towers to support those furthest away, leaving the gatehouse and surrounding fortifications lightly defended. At this point, Athelstan signalled for the actual assault to begin.
A force of several hundred riders emerged from behind the stockade where they had stood hidden; they rode in such a formation that ten riders held one of the great siege ladders as they rode forth, five on either side. It was a most difficult feat to achieve on horseback, being able to keep trotting at the same pace, staying in formation, and holding the ladder, and it could be surmised that they had practised this the last few days.
Their efforts now yielded result; so very swiftly, the Isarn riders reached the walls long before the defenders could finish raising alarms and any reinforcements could be called back from the outer towers. Without delay, the attackers dismounted and placed the siege ladders into position, scaling the walls around the gatehouse; behind them, their infantry crossed the field to take part in the assault and stand prepared for when the gate was conquered and could be opened.
Only one thing stood in the way of Middanhal falling into Athelstan’s grasp; Theobald, captain of the Citadel had taken position on the gatehouse along with all kingthanes in fighting condition. They were only about twenty in number, but each thane fought with the strength of a knight; Berimund, their captain whose axe fell with the fury of Hamaring upon its edge, was equal to many. As for Theobald himself, he had won the grand fight at the solstice games an unequalled number of times, and he had at one time been acknowledged as the greatest warrior in all the realms; the Blade of the North they once called him. That had been before a battle in Heohlond had slashed his leg open, making it impossible for him to ride and forcing him to limp when he wished to walk.
Such frailty was forgotten in the heat of battle; Berimund stood on the outer wall west of the gatehouse, and Theobald took the position east. While Berimund was fearsome and evoked the image of an axe-wielding bear, Theobald despite his weakness fought like a lion with all the skill, training, and experience that made the knights of Adal the most feared enemies to face.
Leading the assault was Eumund, young yet equally deadly with a blade. Among the Isarn army, none stood a better warrior than him; like his father and his uncle, he fuelled the rumours that the sons of Isarn possessed wolf blood. Soon he found himself standing before Theobald, the youthful hotspur against the scarred greybeard. Behind Theobald was the door that led into the gatehouse and onto the inner walls; outside on the ground below, the Isarn army clamoured for the gate to be opened that they might storm into the city.
Eumund struck forward, attacking Theobald; the young knight was trained by Richard of Alwood and had all the makings of a master swordsman to rival Alfbrand and Alfmod themselves. Yet despite weariness, age, wounds, Theobald was no less; he defended himself with utmost cunning, retreating into the doorway and hindering Eumund’s room for manoeuvres.
Back and forth they lunged at each other, but neither fell for the other’s advances. Cries of warning came next, but not from the soldiers defending the walls; on the contrary, it was the attackers calling out. The soldiers lured away to the outmost towers had finally returned and now came to reinforce the gatehouse. Suddenly hard pressed from both sides, the assault began to falter.
Eumund cast a bitter glance at Theobald, who replied with a grim smile; the young scion of Isarn swiftly turned away and ran towards the ladders. Yelling loudly for his men to retreat, they abandoned their attack and hurried down from the walls; those too slow were cut down without hesitation by the defenders.
The Order soldiers cheered loudly at having stood fast as they watched the retreat of the Isarn soldiers; they had overcome the first serious threat thrown against them. Four days had passed since Athelstan’s arrival, and it had been three days of suffering assaults. As fate would have it, it was on the eve of this day that Brand and the vanguard of the Order army finally returned to Middanhal.
A soldier had run ahead to proclaim the victory at Bradon, and the vanguard’s entry into the city was made in triumph and accompanied by the adoration of the inhabitants. The Order soldiers had not yet heard about what had transpired in their absence, however, and so they whispered and wondered to know what tarnished the joy of the citizens.
Reaching the courtyard, many stood ready to welcome the conquering heroes home. Brand slid down from his horse and exchanged embraces with his sister, and many others were greeted similarly among both nobleborn and commonborn.
“You seem whole and hale,” Arndis smiled, examining her brother’s condition with a scrutinizing gaze.
“Indeed,” Brand replied, wearing the same expression. “All went as it should.”
“Good,” Arndis exhaled deeply. Nearby stood her ever-present protectors sent by Berimund, and more now joined to stand near Brand and ensure his safety. “I feel better knowing the kingthanes watch over you. I dislike that they could not ride with you on this occasion.”
“Protecting us while we are at the Citadel is one thing,” Brand told her. “Leaving the boundaries of the city sends a statement the good captain might not be prepared to make. Do not let it concern you. I have a whole army protecting me,” he added with a smile and led her by the arm towards the entrance of the buildings. As if to accentuate his words, the nearby Order soldiers struck their fists against chest and murmured ‘Sigvard’s blood’ as the pair passed by. “What of here?” Brand asked as they walked inside. “Considering the news of victory and our northern flank secured, the city seems oppressed rather than relieved.”
“You have not been told? I thought Captain Theobald had sent messengers to you long ago. They are most anxious to see your army return,” Arndis revealed. “The city is under siege from the south.”
“I have returned with the vanguard only,” Brand explained. “His messengers must have reached the army camp and not encountered us. What has happened?”
“Events took a strange turn while you were away,” Arndis confessed hesitantly. “You should go see the captain of the Citadel at once. He will know the truth compared to rumours, which is all I have knowledge of.”
When Theobald had returned from the walls, Brand approached him in his quarters. “Captain,” Brand spoke out to gain his attention.
Theobald, dirty and worn from fighting with many cuts, removed his sword belt. “My lord,” Theobald replied before his servant pulled his surcoat over his head. “I am to congratulate you, I hear.”
“And I am to extend same to you,” Brand replied. “Jarl Isarn has been sent on his heels back to Silfrisarn while I am told you have valiantly defended the city against his brother.”
“For a few days now,” Theobald nodded. As the weight of his mail armour disappeared, he sank down into a chair and accepted a mug of ale from his servant. “First the Vale boy, Konstantine, showed up and demanded to enter the city. When I refused, he began preparations for a siege. Just in time for Athelstan to appear, seize his equipment, and use it against us,” the captain spoke with a bitter voice. “I do not fear an unproven boy, but I could do without having Athelstan at my gates, fully prepared for a siege.”
“These walls have withstood all frontal assaults since they were built,” Brand reassured him. “They cannot be taken save by deceit.”
“The way you and Richard did,” Theobald acknowledged with raised eyebrows.
“As we did,” Brand nodded. “The soldiers I have brought with me will reinforce your garrison until Sir Richard arrives with the main army and our reinforcements from Theodstan. More troops from the jarldom should be on their way as well. In a few days, we will have equal numbers to Athelstan.”
“A few days may be too long,” the captain said grimly. “Even with the men you brought, we have few warriors of experience left. The new recruits do not last long.”
“Should the worst happen and the walls are breached,” Brand considered, “we retreat beyond the Mihtea. The Arnsbridge is easy to defend, and it will cost them dearly to try and cross the river by any means,” the tall lieutenant spoke casually. “If need be, we may retreat further to the Citadel and hold the northern fortifications, keeping the gate open. We can certainly hold out a few days until Sir Richard arrives.”
From his seat, Theobald looked up at Brand. “That abandons Lowtown to the enemy. Hardly acceptable.”
“I do not see how that would impair us,” Brand frowned. “That will not cost us troops or resources.”
“The destruction and death caused by fighting in the streets will be disastrous,” Theobald exclaimed. “The city has already endured too much of that. Even worse, if Athelstan has to withdraw, he may well set Lowtown on fire to keep us from harrying his retreat,” Theobald said impatiently.
“That may come to pass, but it is not certain,” Brand argued.
“I will not risk it,” Theobald declared. “We cannot allow Athelstan to seize any part of the city.”
“You would defend the walls to the last man,” Brand said questioningly.
“I would,” Theobald answered forcefully.
“What then, when that does not suffice?” Brand retorted. “You said yourself we lack soldiers with experience. We must keep our heads cool and spare our troops. We must be prepared to fall back beyond the Arnsbridge and abandon Lowtown if it becomes untenable to defend the walls.”
“You would sacrifice the lower city?” Theobald asked incredulously, rising to his feet. “You would gladly risk it burning or destroyed, tens of thousands left homeless, and who knows how many might perish?”
“I would sacrifice half the city to save the other half rather than lose it all,” Brand said without emotion. “This is war, captain. There are no easy choices. We must be prepared to risk and lose whatever is necessary in order to preserve what will bring us victory.”
“I know what war is,” Theobald all but shouted. He took a few limping steps towards Brand, leaning his head back a bit to stare into the other man’s face. “I do not need a boy to remind me of risk and loss!”
“If you say so, captain,” Brand spoke in a cold voice. “The walls are yours to defend as you see fit, your garrison is yours to command. But the men placed under my command,” he said with emphasis on the last two words, “will take their orders from me.”
“You do not have authority here,” Theobald argued. “You are not even a knight! I am captain of the Citadel, the city is my responsibility to defend,” he said with a seething voice. “Every soldier here will do as I command, defend the city as I order them to!”
“You may very well believe that,” Brand told the captain, stepping towards the door. “But I suggest you ask the soldiers first before you make such assumptions. You may find that they disagree,” the lieutenant finished with an unimpressed expression and left the room.
When Brand approached his quarters with two kingthanes behind as had become customary, he saw a shape waiting outside his door. It was short like a child, dressed in colourful clothes. Brand frowned slightly as the other person discovered him and all but leapt towards the squire and his protectors. The two kingthanes tensed for a moment, hands reaching for weapons at the sudden movement. As another moment passed, it was revealed to belong to the jester Baldric, and both squire and thanes relaxed.
“Baldric greets you,” the short man said with an overly complicated bow. “He trembles to be in the presence of such lordly might.”
“He may still himself,” Brand replied dryly, “since to him I am but a squire. Unless Baldric is considering joining the Star? Every man will be needed at the walls,” the young man smiled sardonically.
“Alas, one as short as Baldric may never reach for the stars,” the fool said sadly. “His lordship is kind, but Baldric knows better. He has known many descended from the first dragon, and Baldric can tell when he is in the presence of one,” the fool added with a sly look.
“I will take that as a compliment,” Brand acknowledged curtly. “Was there any other reason you sought to speak with me? I am somewhat weary.”
“Of course, of course,” Baldric hurried to say, almost dancing around as if incapable of standing still for too long. “Baldric merely wished to say that many among court, this one included, were hoping to see this young drake dining courtside.”
“I probably will,” Brand remarked, “since my sister will be taking her meals there. But tell me, why does this one care?” the squire asked, emphasising the last three words of the sentence.
“Baldric has seen many things,” the jester explained, weaving his hands around in the air and twisting his shoulders. “But that a dragon should hatch from an eagle’s egg, now that is the strangest yet. Nonetheless, here we are, a silver spur with kingthanes at his back and an army at his call. Maybe such a silver spur could use a cupbearer for his thirst or a fool for his amusement,” Baldric finished, and the squire gave him a scrutinising look, inspecting him with a curious glance.
“I make no such demands, nor have I such requirements,” Brand declared.
“Of course, of course,” Baldric nodded eagerly. “Nothing said, nothing claimed.”
“I may be too occupied with the siege to observe any meal routines,” the squire added.
“All will understand the burden of command and your absence,” Baldric said sagely.
“Very well. Depending on the circumstances, perhaps you may find me in the great hall. I bid you farewell,” Brand finished, giving a short nod before moving past the jester to enter his rooms. The kingthanes remained outside, taking up position and glancing at Baldric. He in turn gave a spirited smile and leapt away.
The following morning, the garrison marched onto the southern walls and prepared to be assaulted by the Isarn forces. Nothing immediate was within sight, however; none of the enemy soldiers could be spotted on the stockade built to enclose the city. Anxious, the soldiers kept their eyes glued towards any sign of movement, Brand, Theobald, and Fionn among them. One stood immobile gazing south, one hobbled around a little, restless, and the third paced around impatiently.
An hour passed until at last Theobald ordered scouts to investigate. It was a hard task to give, considering they only dared spare a handful of men, and they would be walking directly into territory held by the enemy. Eventually, some among the more experienced soldiers, men-at-arms all, volunteered for the task, and they were let outside the gate.
It was impossible to hide in the open land between the city walls and the siege camp. The scouts had been given some of the few available horses, and they could plainly be seen riding towards the stockade. From the gatehouse and the towers, their comrades watched them anxiously. Yet no arrows rained down on them as they reached the palisades, no spears suddenly appeared, no javelins were thrown.
The stockade was not tall; one of the scouts moved to stand on the back of his horse and was able to climb over the wooden stakes. The defenders remaining in the city, those with the sharpest eyes, could see him move back and forth, gazing everywhere. At length he leaned over to speak to the other scouts, ostensibly reporting his findings. Finally, he moved towards the gate and opened it, letting his brethren inside the stockade. From there, they disappeared out of view, and the garrison had no choice but to wait until when or if the scouts returned.
In the end, it took hours before any word reached Middanhal again. Some of the defenders had been sent home to rest; others like Theobald, Brand, and Fionn had taken their meal in the gatehouse and received the scouts immediately upon their return.
There were many details for the outriders to relate; all the strands of the story they had finally managed to weave together. With an impatient noise from Theobald to prompt them, however, the scouts cut to the core of the matter. They had found the siege camp abandoned as well as what remained of the main camp of the Isarn army a few miles away. Only objects too heavy to transport with ease such as the catapults had been left behind. After searching beyond, they eventually encountered the reason for this.
The advance party of an army from Vale had been spotted far to the west, in the direction of Coldharbour. The main bulk was still beyond immediate reach, apparently, but presumably, Athelstan’s scouts had discovered what Theobald’s had as well. Rather than risk becoming trapped between Vale’s army and the garrison of Middanhal, suffering the same fate that Athelstan had unleashed upon Konstantine by assaulting his scattered troops conducting a siege, the commander of Isarn’s army had chosen to withdraw and consider his options.
“Well,” Fionn remarked prosaically, leaning against one of the crenellations while biting into a pod of peas, “as long as they keep scaring each other away, defending the city will be easy.”
“Take a strong body of men,” Theobald began to speak, “grab some axes, ride out, and chop those catapults into pieces. There is no need to leave them intact for whoever intends to besiege us next,” the captain commanded Fionn, who nodded in response.
“The siege towers?” Brand said questioningly, to which the captain shook his head.
“They are within range of our archers. Better to tempt the enemy to retrieve them and make it costly,” Theobald argued.
“As you prefer,” Brand deferred, though the vague smile on his lips belied his subservient attitude.
“How long until Richard returns?” the captain asked.
“The day after tomorrow at the earliest. Possibly the day after that,” Brand estimated. “Though if your messengers reached him, he will strive to make haste, no doubt.”
“If we are lucky, Vale and Athelstan will destroy each other for us,” Theobald pondered.
“If we are lucky,” Brand repeated; he gave a small, courteous nod and departed, followed as always by two kingthanes.
A handful of miles away, the Isarn army had made camp for the night. There were twice as many sentries posted as usual, and scouts on swift horses roamed the area despite the darkness, ensuring that no movements would go unnoticed. Although Athelstan had defeated the Vale army once before, he took no chances; especially not this close to Middanhal with the risk that its garrison might become involved in any battle or possibly raid his camp while fighting the Vale army.
In his tent, Athelstan was studying a map of Adalrik. Occasionally his fingers moved over the terrain, hovering over the flat lands just south of the capital before the terrain became hilly between the rivers Cudrican and Sureste. Eumund was also present, but he was more agitated, sitting restless in his seat. “We were so close,” he spoke bitterly, clenching his hand into a fist. “I was on the wall, I was almost in the gatehouse itself.”
“There is no point in dwelling on it,” Athelstan told him without looking up. “What matters is the situation now rather than what it might have been.”
“I still do not understand how the Order could have retaken the city,” Eumund grumbled. “We left a thousand men or so, how could the garrison at the Citadel have overwhelmed them?”
“That is a question we will have answered once the city is ours once more. Again, retain your focus on the situation at hand,” Athelstan cautioned his nephew.
“Very well,” Eumund acceded. “Should we attack the Vale army? It went well last time.”
“I find it strange they would dare to return,” his uncle frowned.
“From what the prisoners told us, Vale’s nephew is a fool,” Eumund said casually. “I believe him capable of such a decision.”
“But he was a frightened fool,” Athelstan argued. “He turned tail and ran all the way to Coldharbour. Something must have given him the courage to face us again, most likely reinforcements. By now, the jarl must know that our army is not marching on Valcaster, freeing his troops.”
“We have defeated everything we have faced,” Eumund declared, reaching out to pour himself a cup of wine. “I do not fear any number of soldiers that Vale brings against us.”
“We should not let that spur us into carelessness,” Athelstan warned him. “We retreat further south until the river Cudrican. We can retreat beyond it if we need to, and until then, it will provide us with fresh water.”
“You think it necessary to retreat further?” Eumund asked surprised.
“The Order remains an unknown factor in all of this. I will not risk them attacking us while we are engaged with Vale. We must accept the realities of our situation, Nephew.”
“You sound as if our plight is great,” Eumund frowned. “True, Middanhal is beyond our grasp for now, but surely its garrison is light. We saw that during our assaults. We would have to face Vale in battle sooner or later. Once they are defeated, we will retake Middanhal, and Father’s armies will reinforce us.”
“Our immediate goals have not changed, no,” Athelstan replied, “but our room to manoeuvre is greatly diminished. Should we be defeated, we can no longer retreat to Middanhal and our own lands. We will be besieged in Ingmond, where the population is hostile against us and hope of relief is dim. Furthermore, the lord marshal remains in Hæthiod with five hundred knights and the Hæthian levies,” the old knight reminded the young.
“You think the lord marshal might abandon the campaign against the outlanders and march against us?” Eumund said with doubt in his voice.
“I do not think it likely, but if we are trapped in Ingmond just on the other side of the border…” Athelstan gave a shrug. “I do not wish to find out. Hence, we cannot afford a single mistake. Every care must be taken, we must win the next battle, or this army and we with it will be hunted down.”
“We best make sure we win, then,” Eumund said casually, taking a sip of his wine.
“Indeed,” Athelstan said absentmindedly, his attention resuming on the map.
“Uncle,” Eumund began to speak with hesitation, “do you blame me for the failure of taking the gatehouse? When we assaulted Middanhal.”
Athelstan looked up at his nephew. “Do you think I should blame you?”
“Hard to tell,” Eumund replied. “Your plan to take the gatehouse was good, and it was my task to execute it, yet it failed. Same as how I was supposed to take the Citadel in the first place. I called a retreat on both those occasions because it seemed lost, and now that the castle garrison has retaken Middanhal…” his voice trailed off before he continued again. “I worry that my decisions have twice over cost us control of the city.”
Athelstan sat silent for a moment. “Remember what I have told you,” he began to say, “about the most important quality a good captain possesses?”
“Good lieutenants,” Eumund answered without hesitation.
Athelstan nodded. “A captain is only as capable as his lieutenants. Before a battle, he may devise strategies and tactics. However, once it has begun, a battle is decided on the front lines. A good strategy can only bring you so far,” he told his nephew. “You must trust your lieutenants to act and react according to how the battle develops. Could we have taken the gatehouse and thereby the city if you had pressed on rather than retreated from the walls? Possibly,” Athelstan granted. “But it was also possible that you and my strongest warriors would have been slaughtered or imprisoned, and I would have been left without my best lieutenant,” he continued. “You deemed it most likely that the latter would have happened, and so you called a retreat. I trust your decisions, Eumund. Else I would have stripped you of your rank and responsibility.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Eumund said, sounding relieved.
“Do not let doubts concerning past decisions cloud your mind. It will make you indecisive in battle, which is the worst quality a commander can have. Cast these thoughts aside that you may rest soundly,” Athelstan ordered him. “We have trying days ahead.”
“As you say, Uncle,” Eumund assented and left to do as commanded.