Men May Ride
The first bell of the day had barely rung to announce sunrise when a span of horses were harnessed to a carriage in the southern courtyard of the Citadel. Beyond that, forty horses were also saddled and their riders congregating. Each rider was armed and armoured, wearing a surcoat with a golden dragon that proclaimed them as the kingthanes. They were considered the best warriors in the land, some of noble and some of common birth, and rivalled only by the fearsome Templar knights. They had sworn oaths to give their lives for the House of Adal, the descendants of Sigvard who ruled all of Adalmearc. Which currently meant an eleven-year-old boy, yawning as he stepped outside. “It’s so early, Berimund,” Sigmund said to the captain of the thanes. “Did it have to be at sunrise?”
“Fewer people on the street, my prince,” Berimund said. “Better this way.”
“Is that why we will not be sailing from Coldharbour?” the boy asked.
“Exactly, my prince. People expect us to sail to Valcaster, and so we will take the unexpected route over land.”
“Baldric thought it was because the great captain Berimund, while having the strength of a bear, has the courage of a cat where water is concerned.” The small, hunchbacked jester came practically skipping out of the castle.
“You be quiet,” Berimund growled.
“As the mighty thane says,” Baldric replied with a mock bow. “Though Baldric laments he will not see the river. He has exhausted his supply of rotten fish.” The jester hurried inside the carriage before the captain could aim a kick in his direction.
“I would gladly stand in the path of an arrow for you, my prince,” Berimund began to complain, “but no kingthane has ever been subjected to such undignified barbs as that accursed jester throws at me.”
“You are too easy a mark,” Sigmund reproached Berimund. “If you do not let yourself seem affected, Baldric will tire of you.”
“It would be easier to simply let me place the edge of my axe between his head and his shoulders.”
“Berimund!” Sigmund scolded, which made the huge man sigh dramatically, which in turn made the prince laugh. “I am glad you are coming with me to Valcaster, Berimund. You and Baldric.”
“I would never dream of parting from you, my prince.”
“Because you keep me safe, right?”
“Because I plant my axe between the shoulders and head of any man who would dare cast a shadow on your path,” Berimund said with a wry smile, which made the prince grin.
They were interrupted by the lady Isabel, the prince’s mother, who came out to bid her son goodbye. “Now Sigmund,” she said, placing her hands on his shoulders, “conduct yourself as it befits the heir to the realms.”
“Yes, Mother,” the prince said.
“Do not let Baldric in any way offend Jarl Valerian, is that understood?”
“Learn what you can from them. They are important people, and one day you will deal with them when you rule these lands.”
Having finished her admonitions, Isabel pulled her son close for an embrace. Her otherwise grim face became lit with concern. “I wish you would not have to leave,” she said. “I am not certain I can forgive this jarl for taking you away from me.”
“I will be fine, Mother,” Sigmund said, pulling out of his mother’s embrace. “At least I will get to see someplace new.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Isabel said unconvinced. She watched her son climb into the carriage and then look out, waving at her. Around them, two scores of kingthanes mounted their horses, and Berimund moved to the front as the guards opened the castle gates. Moments later, the company rode out.
One of the south-eastern districts of Middanhal, though still lying north of the river and the paupers’ Lowtown, was dominated by the merchants and their warehouses, specifically those trading under the seal of Vale. The warehouse workers were busy each day even though all the caravans with goods from the deep South had arrived in Middanhal for the year. The next step was distribution around the city and sending goods onwards to northern and eastern Adalmearc. Arion as the jarl’s right-hand man was overseeing the process with his army of clerks.
“Pardon me, master chamberlain,” one of the guards said as he approached Arion. “We found this vagrant hanging about, asking for you,” the guard said, pointing towards the entrance of the warehouse. Two other guards stood on either side of Nicholas, holding his bag in one hand and bow staff in the other.
“You can let him in,” Arion said, and the guard gestured for the others to allow Nicholas entry. The archer stumbled forward a bit and crossed the warehouse floor to reach Arion, who was watching bags of spice being distributed.
“Sorry for the intrusion, good master. Do you remember me?”
“The archer from solstice,” Arion said, “I recall.”
“You offered me a position as one of Lord Vale’s archers.”
“I recall that also.”
“I would like to accept and put my bow at his disposal.”
“How generous of you,” Arion said smiling. “There is one thing you have forgotten to ask, however.”
“What might that be?” Nicholas asked with a nervous touch to his voice.
“If such an offer still stands, clearly,” Arion said like a tutor explaining to a child.
“Does his lordship’s offer still stand?” Nicholas asked, to which Arion laughed.
“You wish to know if you can refuse the most powerful man in the kingdom and whether he would sit around waiting for you to change your mind?”
“I didn’t think it like that,” Nicholas said hesitantly.
“Obviously you did not,” Arion said with a hint of contempt. “Now be gone. Sell your services elsewhere,” the chamberlain said and turned around, already engrossed in his work again. Nicholas renewed his grip on his belongings and turned around as well to leave.
While the prince’s company had departed from the southern courtyard, leaving it mostly empty, the northern courtyard of the Citadel was bustling with activity. The lord marshal was riding out with five hundred knights, nearly all of whom were gathering in that location. Each knight had either a squire or a sergeant as his personal attendant to care for his horse, help him in and out of his armour, and to fight by his side. Add to that, the wealthier of the knights were bringing several horses to ensure they always had a fresh mount. In summation, one could not throw a stone without hitting a horse somewhere. The Order’s stables at the Citadel had been emptied, which had not been enough, however. More horses had been brought from the fields north of the city where there was much farmland reserved for rearing the beasts for the Order.
Near the front of the column were the lord marshal and his second-in-command, Sir William of Tothmor. A slender woman managed to weave her way through the throng of horses and men to reach the knight before he mounted his steed. “Lady Eleanor,” he said, inclining his head. She wore a dark veil as one might do when in mourning, though here it served to hide the scars on her face.
“I thought I should give you this,” she said, extending her hand that held a flower. Its blue petals were shaped in a peculiar fashion, which gave it its name.
“A bluebell,” William said, smiling. “Where did you find one this far north?”
“One of the gardeners grows it here,” Eleanor told him. “Someone must have brought seeds with them upon leaving Hæthiod.”
“I thank you for it,” William said earnestly and carefully tucked it into his bracer.
“Be safe,” she said, bidding him farewell.
Upon the parapets overlooking the courtyard stood Quill and Brand, gazing down upon the knights, squires, and sergeants. “Quite a sight,” Quill remarked.
“They seem invincible,” Brand said, “even if this is only a small part of the army.”
“How can it be that you and Sir Athelstan are not among their numbers?” asked Quill.
“Sir Athelstan will take command of the footmen. We will follow later once the muster has been completed,” Brand explained.
“I see. A sensible choice. He is renowned as a great captain.”
“Indeed. I learned much from him when we were abroad, although he was reluctant to speak of the campaign that won him his fame.”
“Losses were heavy in Heohlond on all sides. Must be heavy memories,” Quill said as they watched the exchange between William and Eleanor.
“There is a woman making her goodbyes to Sir William,” Brand said, narrowing his eyes in concentration. “I thought he had simply arrived in Middanhal for the solstice tournament, on his own.”
“No, he arrived in the city years ago, though I believe he does leave from time to time. He was in Vidrevi not long ago. He originally left Hæthiod to serve the Order here,” Quill elaborated. “That is how he was part of the campaign in the highlands. The woman is Lady Eleanor, his ward.”
“I do not know the story,” Quill admitted. “He brought her with him when she was still a girl. She is of age now, though she keeps to herself from what I understand.”
“She gave him a parting gift, I think.”
“A bluebell, I would venture to guess,” Quill said.
“Not a guess plucked from open air, I take it.”
“It is a custom from Hæthiod,” Quill explained. “Bluebells grow everywhere on their heaths, I am told. When somebody is leaving for a journey, a family member finds a cluster of bluebells and picks one for the traveller to bring with him or her. Afterwards, the family watches the remaining flowers in the cluster. If they keep their blue colour, it is a sign that the departed one is safe. But should the petals grow to a dark, purple colour, it is a sign that the traveller has met a terrible fate.”
“Very useful,” Brand said dryly, “if one believes what a flower would tell you.”
“I find it to be a charming tradition,” Quill argued. “We have something similar in Alcázar. The girls of my home city will knot leather strings together in an intricate pattern for their dear ones to bring with them. It is a way to remember somebody far away or to be remembered,” Quill said.
The old scribe’s eyes were still watching the spectacle below, so he did not observe Brand’s hand slipping under the opening of his tunic, caressing a leather string tied around his neck. “Is that so,” Brand muttered, barely audible. “By the way,” Brand added in a louder voice, “my sister may be interested in visiting your library with your permission. Might I introduce her to you before I have to depart?”
“Of course,” Quill nodded. “She will be most welcome.”
“I thank you. Ah, they are leaving now,” Brand pointed out. Down in the courtyard, the last men mounted their horses, and the lord marshal signalled for the company to move out. Forward they rode, transforming into long rows of riders riding steadily through the gate of the Citadel.
“Men may ride, but the raven will fly,” Brand said contemplatively.
“I always found that an odd saying,” Quill mentioned.
“It seems apt on this occasion,” Brand replied. “Seeing so many men ride out. I wonder how many the raven will come for before it is over.” Quill gave no answer to this.
The last time that Athelstan found himself in the Hall of Records, it had been to report his return from Alcázar. The scribes were still there, busy flitting about; one clerk was moving stacks of blocks out of Middanhal, including one gilded round the edges, representing the lord marshal. Only a few markers remained, including such names as Athelstan, Roderic, Eumund, Richard, and their respective squires and sergeants.
Athelstan gazed over the other parts of the map. In the north, several strong contingents maintained the peace in Heohlond, whereas Vidrevi was rather lacking in Order presence. Numerous regiments were scattered across the isles of Thusund, but there were more than one empty wooden fortress or tower in that part of Adalmearc. Ealond and Korndale had some numbers, concentrated in the south where they manned the Langstan. Lastly Hæthiod, where Athelstan’s gaze came to rest. It was a mostly barren land, especially in the east, which was often subjected to raids by the outlanders. Only the most hardy or desperate people dwelt there.
In the centre of the kingdom lay its capital, Tothmor; a few smaller castles lay around the countryside as well, and of course, there were the garrisons at the wall. The scribes were still waiting for information before they could bring that part of the map up to date, but everyone knew that several of those garrisons would be extinguished. If the outlanders had arrived in force, it would not have been difficult for them to sweep up and down the wall. Athelstan’s ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of his nephew.
“You sent for me,” Eumund said.
“I did,” his uncle replied curtly.
“Any reason you saw fit to drag me here?”
“I may be your uncle, Eumund, but as of yesterday I am your commander,” Athelstan said sharply, turning to look at his nephew. “I command, you obey without question.”
“Of course, I apologise,” Eumund mumbled and looked down.
“When I gave you your orders yesterday, you seemed dismayed to stay behind.”
“The other knights will have lots of opportunities to fight before we even arrive. The war might be over by the time we reach Hæthiod.”
“Unlikely,” Athelstan remarked. “What do you see when you look at this map?” the older knight asked as he gestured towards the map on the floor before them.
“I see Adalmearc and the Order’s troops,” Eumund said, his voice disinterested.
“What does it tell you?” Athelstan asked, whose voice in turn grew sharp again.
“That there has been war in Heohlond, that there is war in Hæthiod.”
“It tells us that the Order is stretched thin,” Athelstan pointed out. “The noblemen will have to raise their levies, probably, but that will not avail anything in the long run once this war is over. We will still need soldiers to maintain the peace.”
“If the outlanders are driven out, that should be easy enough.”
“Not just in Hæthiod,” Athelstan retorted. “Heohlond and Vidrevi are barely contributing, and the king of Thusund is growing old with a slipping grasp on power. Which spells trouble.”
“Ealond and Korndale are at peace,” Eumund argued. “Along with Adalrik, they are the heartlands. While I hate giving the garlic eaters credit, at least they seem too placid to rebel.”
“The southerners, whom you so contemptuously refer to, are not the leaders of the Order nor responsible for the realms.”
“The lord marshal is a – southerner,” Eumund said, not repeating the reference to southern food habits.
“While he may be a good man, such responsibilities call for great men,” Athelstan replied. “I summoned you to this room to remind you that you are not a soldier, you are a leader. You do not enter the battlefield looking for glory but for victory.”
“I thought them the same,” Eumund countered.
“Only in the mind of the vain,” Athelstan quickly shot back. “Let other knights compete in tournaments or treat war as play. We have a more important charge.”
“And have you been teaching such lessons to your squire as well?” Eumund said suddenly.
“Brand is a quick study,” Athelstan said. “He has both the blood and the mind to be a great captain.”
“It would seem he agrees. Ever since his return, he has been making postures, flaunting his blue colours everywhere.”
“Why this gap between you? Did he not pull you from the river as boys?”
“He did,” Eumund said, “and then treated it as nothing. As if saving my life was of little consequence, no more than petting his dog.”
“I find that hard to believe. For seven years he has shown me nothing but respect,” Athelstan claimed. “He is like my own blood to me.”
“But he is not your blood,” Eumund reminded his uncle. “There is commonborn, and there is nobleborn. But Adalbrand wastes no opportunity reminding others that he is dragonborn and that he stands better than the rest of us.”
“There may have been squabbles between you when you were pages at the Citadel,” Athelstan said, “but you are both men, and you will be knights together. Equals in the eyes of the Order.”
“You think he will ever see me as his equal?” Eumund snorted. “I am the son of a jarl! Because coincidence made his ancestor a king, he is somehow better than me? My father is among the most important men of the realm, whereas his was a pauper knight.”
“And it is not coincidence that made your father wealthy and influential unlike his?” argued Athelstan. “Do not be so quick to judge a man born to so little.”
“He may be your squire, Uncle,” Eumund said, “but he is not your kinsman, nor will he ever consider you such. One day, you will see I am right.” With those words, the younger knight left.
Several days passed after the departure of the prince to Valcaster and the knights of the Order to Hæthiod. The many celebrants of the solstice were also returning to their villages and homesteads, and the city turned quieter. Normal life returned, and the only indications that anything was out of the ordinary were the regiments of Order soldiers occasionally marching down the Arnsweg and through the southern gate, carting supplies with them. They were gathering at an encampment at Lake Myr several days south of Middanhal, meeting up with troops and provisions arriving from Ealond. On occasion regiments arrived from the north, passing through, but the city was slowly being emptied of soldiers.
Then it happened that a soldier came riding from the south. Wearing the surcoat of the Order meant that he was not stopped at the gate but simply rode straight through and up the Arnsweg. He crossed the bridge, passed through the Temple square, and continued to the Citadel. He followed the street around the castle to enter the northern courtyard and leapt down from his horse, leaving somebody else to take care of the beast. The rider ran inside and jumped up the steps until he reached the floor housing the office of the knight marshal.
The rider did not bother to knock but simply pushed the door open. Inside, the marshal raised an eyebrow at this breach of custom, yet he did not speak. He merely accepted the letter that the rider extended to him. Roderic unfurled the scroll and glanced over it. “You have come from the lord marshal’s camp?” he asked after reading it.
“Yes, milord,” said the soldier, still catching his breath. “Messengers from Hæthiod reached us just by the border. Four days ago. He gave me this message to bring back at once.”
“You have done well,” the knight marshal said and hurried past the soldier out of his study. He walked through the corridors until he reached the quarters belonging to the Master of the Citadel. Finding it empty, he headed towards the Hall of Records. Said master was an old, wizened man, whose eyes were nearly closed with age. He managed to open them wide, however, as the marshal of Adalrik marched over and stuck the missive in his hands. “We finally received more tangible information than merely beacons being lit,” Roderic told the old man.
“This came from Sir Reynold? Is this accurate?”
“We must assume so,” said the marshal.
“But these numbers – even if you empty Adalrik, it will not be enough.”
“Clearly,” Roderic said a touch impatiently. “We must mobilise every man we can, footmen and archers, and any remaining knights. We need them all.”
The very same day, the town criers entered the city with the news. The Order was recruiting able-bodied men, regardless of experience, for the war in Hæthiod. Tens of thousands of outlanders were marching on Tothmor, and every man would be needed for the fight.