A Lordly Gift
The following day, the news of two events made the city explode in excitement, anticipation, anxiety, or a blend of all three. The first was the completely unexpected wedding between the queen and the man already considered her hero. These tidings were coupled with the many rumours of what had happened to the whiterobes in one bloody night when so many of them fell. The temple of Hamaring was still closed, and a couple of Blades kept the curious neighbourhood boys away, though a few of the novices had been seen cleaning the place and making it fit for habitation again.
There were some that believed a revolt had taken place with the result that Leander in league with the count of Esmarch had forced the queen to marry him and make him king; those telling that story could not quite account for how all the dead whiterobes fit into it, though. Mostly, people were baffled considering Leander had never had a reputation for aspiring to anything, and many imagined the wedding to be some form of gambit in courtly intrigues. There were also a few, a faction to which Troy belonged and gave aid with his ballads, who believed the queen and their new king to be sweethearts that had always longed for each other.
The second piece of news was that the Mearcian army had been sighted by the sentries, and it was now reaching the city on its retreat. This was far more sobering; while people argued about the cause, their defeat in battle was an established fact, and it meant that a siege was to follow. When the soldiers reached the city and began marching in, there were no cheers or cries of support; they were met with only silent stares, some conveying pity and others conveying judgement. The soldiers themselves seemed to care little. Those that had homes in Tothmor went there; the rest were assigned to various barracks or buildings commandeered for the purpose.
The marshal of Hæthiod, however, moved straight to the palace. Once he reached it, the servants quickly located the steward and informed him of the marshal’s presence; the steward in turn located the king and queen. The pair reached the throne room and found the marshal standing there, waiting for them. His attire was torn, bloodied, and worn, and fatigue was visible upon his face. Upon seeing the royal couple, followed by their shadow Hubert, he managed to incline his head in greeting but nothing more.
“Sir Leonard,” Theodora spoke, “we are both pleased to see you returned.”
“Your Majesties,” he answered. “I am told to congratulate you, though you have chosen an interesting time to assume responsibilities, my good king.”
“So I have,” Leander conceded. “Just hearing you address me in that manner is odd. But please, tell us of the situation.”
“The outlanders have been hot on our heels,” the marshal explained. “They will be here soon and begin the siege. The king of Korndale was told to mobilise and should bring a relief force, however. If we can last, we may force them to abandon their assault on the city and retreat.”
“So there is hope,” Theodora remarked. “Do whatever you must to hold the city, Sir Leonard.”
“I shall,” Leonard inclined his head. “I am returning to my chambers in the Order tower now to make plans. I would normally be joined by the other commanders present, but I fear they all fell upon the battlefield.” A shadow went across Theodora’s face upon hearing this, but she did not speak, and Leonard continued. “Of course, Your Majesties are welcome to join me.”
Theodora and Leander exchanged looks. “You go, my dear,” Theodora said. “I have other affairs. With so many of our vassals lost in battle, several issues will crop up.”
“Of course,” Leander nodded. “I shall accompany you, marshal.”
“Perhaps you would like to bring Count Esmarch?” Theodora suggested, sparking a grin from Hubert behind her.
“Probably best,” Leander smiled and bent down slightly to kiss his wife’s cheek. “We will speak later. Sir Leonard, Lord Hubert, let us be on our way,” he commanded and followed the marshal’s lead.
Leaving the palace and crossing the grounds, the three men entered the Order tower. It had been all but deserted of late, but now it was once more packed with soldiers. Moving up the floors to the top containing the marshal’s office, they were welcomed by the marshal’s secretary who expressed his relief at seeing his master unharmed.
“Thank you, Thestor,” Leonard answered. “We will need the map of the city.” The secretary nodded and dug out a key, which he subsequently used upon a large chest. Opening it, he rummaged through its various contents until he dug out an old, folded-up piece of parchment. He handed it to the marshal, who unfurled it and placed it on the table.
To the north, it showed the top of the solitary mountain that served as Tothmor’s foundation; southwards, the five semicircles of the city spread out. Primarily the walls, gates, and towers were emphasised along with the palace and the Order tower, but something else of great peculiarity was carefully penned onto the map.
“The old tunnels,” Leander exclaimed as he realised what it was.
“Quite right, Your Majesty,” the marshal confirmed. “What makes this map worth locking away is that it depicts the tunnels. Some of them, at any rate,” the knight amended. “Are you acquainted with them?”
“I have been told of this one,” Leander explained, pointing his finger at one tunnel that began from the palace and led north. “It is known to everyone in the royal family. It has its beginning in the royal bedchamber, though I wonder where it ends,” he pondered. The depiction on the map simply showed the tunnel reaching the northern edge of the map and nothing else.
“It seems to go through the mountain,” Hubert commented.
“These are the tunnels I am interested in, however,” the marshal said, taking charge of the subject. He pointed towards several tunnels that led from various points inside the city and outside beyond the walls.
“Exit points for sorties,” the count of Esmarch muttered in a growl.
“Tothmor has not been besieged in my time, but they should still be there,” Leonard considered. “Once we know where the outlanders have positioned themselves, we can begin striking at them.”
“I thought a siege mostly consisted of us staying behind our walls,” Leander admitted.
“Hardly, boy,” Hubert bellowed. “We will be making it hot for those bastards as long as they are outside our walls. I cannot wait!”
“Quite,” the marshal mumbled and changed the subject once more. “We will need increased guards, but I will handle that later. Right now we have to implement the usual precautions in a situation such as this.”
“They would be?” Leander ventured to ask.
“Well, preparations,” the old knight elaborated. “We need to inspect the storehouses for a lot of materials. Timber, stone to repair damage to our walls. We need to confiscate all horses in the city. We will keep the best as long as we can, but the rest has to be butchered. We can use the meat, and we need to ration the fodder.” In the background, the marshal’s secretary was busy writing down his master’s commands.
“I see,” Leander simply remarked.
“The noblemen in the city employ plenty of guards,” Hubert offered. “They should be conscripted for the defence of the city.”
“Agreed,” Leonard nodded and continued his summary. “All ale brewing must be banned, of course, we cannot spend grain on that either. We should stock fabric for bandages.”
“I have ordered the sibyls to train more lay brothers,” Leander inserted with a measure of pride. “So that we will have enough to treat the wounded.”
“Is that so,” Leonard uttered. “We need to call out stricter rations for water too, starting now. And more guards at the cisterns and water supply.”
“In the lower circle too,” Hubert added. “We will need barrels of water down there for when the fires start.”
“Quite right,” the marshal conceded.
“Will people really want to steal something as simple as water?” Leander could not refrain from asking, and all eyes in the room turned towards him, even Thestor’s.
“No worse enemy than thirst,” Hubert growled. “Hunger makes people desperate, but thirst, thirst is a demon that makes you mad. I once saw men kill each other simply to drink their blood to satiate themselves.” The imagery painted a look of nausea onto Leander’s face, and he fell silent.
“We need all fletchers in the city working every hour of daylight,” the marshal continued, glancing at his scribe who nodded and scribbled furiously. “I want every fowl in the city plucked for its feathers, confiscate the lot.”
“How many bow staves do we have in reserve?” asked Hubert. “There may be men in this city currently unarmed but able to wield a longbow.”
“We have very few,” Leonard admitted. “Our supplies from Vidrevi have lessened these last few years. Seems they found other markets for their timber paying more.”
“Bloody moss lickers,” Hubert mumbled.
“Question that remains in my mind, however,” the marshal suddenly said, “is what role Your Majesty intends to play.” He turned his gaze up from the map and stared directly at Leander.
“Well,” Leander scratched his head, “I will be down at the battlements. You know, defending the city.”
“I am just curious because I return to this city finding it has a king. Yet when I rode out, it had only a drunken young fop whom I believe had never actually used a sword with a sharp edge before,” Leonard said coldly. For a moment, the only sound heard was Thestor dropping his quill onto the floor.
“How dare you!” exclaimed Hubert, grasping his sword, and he had it halfway out the sheath before the marshal raised a hand in a disarming gesture.
“I made no threats against His Majesty,” Leonard pointed out, “I merely state what I know. Once the horde of red-robed barbarians assaults these walls, I will have my hands full. There will be hundreds of boys under my command, screaming for their mothers because they have never known the terror of a siege before. I will have to keep them on those walls, bleeding and dying day after day, whatever it takes. If they run, I will have to hang them for desertion,” the marshal spoke with steel in his voice.
He paused momentarily before he continued. “But if they see their king lose his head, screaming and running away, I cannot punish His Majesty for such a display nor prevent every other man on those fortifications from doing the same. I have a duty to protect this city, and I need to know whether His Majesty will aid me or hinder me in that duty. So I ask again, Your Majesty,” Leonard said, emphasising the title, “what role do you intend to play?”
“How dare you impugn his honour,” the count raged, but Leander raised a hand to silence his protector.
“Thank you, Lord Hubert, the marshal asks a fair question,” Leander said, his own voice matching the marshal’s icy tone. “I will tell you this, Sir Leonard. I will walk onto those walls at sunrise each day, and I will not leave until nightfall for as long as this siege lasts. Every day. My word as king of Hæthiod.”
“A word I will keep you to,” the marshal declared.
“I take it we are done here,” was Leander’s only reply. As he turned and left the room, followed by Hubert, the young king did his best to hide how his hands shook.
The next day, those with keenest eyes among the sentinels spotted the outlanders. Wherever they had made camp, it was too far away to be seen from the city; soon their scouts appeared, however, and they were followed by others. More and more soldiers marched into view until their red colours seemed to fill the heath. They did not move close enough for arrows to reach, nor did they take other actions. They simply stood in a display of discipline, a show of force, displaying every outlander ready to be unleashed upon the city.
Finally, some of the ranks separated and gave way for a small procession to move forward; it consisted of several riders, a small company of infantry, and a wagon. They approached the walls slowly, calmly. As they came within earshot, one of the outlanders called out in perfect Mearcspeech. “We have come to negotiate the terms of your surrender,” the herald proclaimed. This birthed activity on the walls, and messengers were sent up the mountain to the inner circle, bringing word to the relevant parties.
The marshal arrived first, having easy access to a horse. Although responsible for the city’s defences, he did not begin the negotiations; he simply stood, surveying all he could about the numbers of the outlanders as well as how they seemed to position themselves. Shortly after, the king and queen arrived. Leander was dressed for battle, while Theodora wore garments in brown leather meant for riding. A few steps behind them was Hubert as always. They joined the marshal atop the gatehouse.
“Have they said anything?” asked Leander.
“Not since I arrived,” Leonard muttered.
“Let us not keep them waiting any longer,” Theodora said. “I am Her Majesty Theodora, queen of Hæthiod by the grace of the Seven and Eighth, heir to the county of Lakonia, protector of the marches and rightful ruler of the lands upon which you trespass,” she called out. “Who are you to approach my city in arms?”
“Your Majesty,” replied the outlander herald, “I speak on behalf of Lord Sikandar, appointed commander by the will of Shahriyar, He Who Has Awakened. His Divine Majesty has sent Lord Sikandar to reclaim the land stolen from our people in days past. He will no longer tolerate the wall your people have built to keep His people from returning to their ancestral lands.”
“This city was built by our people,” Theodora answered in a strong voice for all to hear. “We reject any claims your lords may place upon it and its surroundings lands. You have unrightfully waged war against us. Leave, or the full might of the Seven Realms will bear down upon you.”
“We do not fear your threats,” the herald retorted. “Our numbers are endless, and we will no longer be denied what is rightfully ours. My lord Sikandar gives you three days to reconsider, to surrender and open the city gates. Do so, and all will be spared. Do not, and you will bring needless suffering upon the city.”
“You may return tomorrow, the day after, in three days’ time, or in a year,” Theodora said calmly, but still loudly. “Our only response will be the steel of our swords and arrows.”
“You say that now, Your Majesty,” the herald spoke. “But make full use of the three days. To aid in your decision, my lord Sikandar leaves this gift for you,” he finished, gesturing towards the wagon. His message delivered, the herald and his following returned to their lines, leaving the cart behind. Once the delegation had reached the outlander army, all the soldiers swung around and began marching out of sight.
“Well spoken, Your Majesty,” Leonard said quietly to Theodora. “It is imperative the men feel our resolve is unwavering.”
“We are fully aware of the importance of morale, sir knight,” Leander said coldly to the marshal and walked with his wife down from the gatehouse. In front of the gate on the inner side of the walls was an open yard. There, the royal couple waited along with the gathered soldiers and curious souls as the marshal sent a small band out to retrieve the cart left by the outlanders.
No animals had been left behind to pull the wagon, so the soldiers had to do that by hand. When they finally pushed and pulled it into the yard and the gate slammed together behind them, a pungent smell gave away its contents. Nonetheless, they had to approach and see with their own eyes; the marshal walked up as the first and pulled the covers away, revealing several bodies. They were carefully selected too. Sir Reynold, former lord marshal of the Order along with several other knights whose features were clearly visible, most likely why they had been chosen; among their number were also several counts and noblemen of Hæthiod, including Stephen, who had been the count of Lakonia.
A sharp intake of air could be heard from Theodora; Leander reached out one hand towards her arm to keep her back, but she stepped forward nonetheless and gazed into her father’s dead eyes. “Here lies my father,” she said, raising her head to let her gaze sweep over the assembled soldiers. “They invaded our lands and cut him down, a lord of our people. I must go now to bury him,” she added, returning her eyes to look at her father’s cold body. “But they will come. And when they do, you will shed a river of blood for each drop of ours,” she declared, turning one last time to look at her soldiers. “A thousand lives of theirs for each father and son of ours!” she demanded, and she was rewarded with clamour of agreement and cheers.
“She’s vicious,” said one greybeard to a young soldier standing by him. “I quite like her,” the veteran continued, nodding in acknowledgement.
A horse was brought and harnessed to the wagon so that it might be brought up the hill and to the temple of Idisea for burial preparations. Behind it walked the king and queen and their protector. “At least we have three days before it begins,” Leander remarked. He was holding Theodora’s hand as they walked.
“I wonder why they would give us that long,” Theodora contemplated.
“My best guess, Your Majesty,” Hubert interceded, “that is how long they need to prepare their siege engines.” The rest of the journey back to the palace was spent in silence.
While the outlanders might have given three days in consideration of their terms, they did not spend them idly. The next day, the sentinels spotted them on the horizon. They did not approach the city but began work of some sort under heavy guard. Soon, a stockade began rising as well as other constructions the eye could not discern. “What are they doing?” asked a soldier. He was not quite tall enough for the tabard he wore, but he looked young enough that he might still grow into it.
“Fortifying their defences,” answered the marshal, who was standing nearby. “Probably building screens out of wicker or similarly to give cover from our arrows.”
“We are not going to do anything about it, sir?” asked the young soldier, adding the title as he realised to whom he was speaking.
“Too risky going that far,” Leonard shook his head. “We cannot know how many men they have hidden. Best we focus on our own preparations,” he concluded, turning to gaze inwards at his own fortifications. Along the city wall, numerous lean-tos and similar shelters had sprung up over the years. They were typically made of wood and cloth, quick to burn should flames come close, and now soldiers were busy dismantling them.
Some had been used for storage, and whatever goods they held were being taken elsewhere, replaced by barrels of water in case of fire. Some of these shacks held livestock, so the beasts were sent to the butchers; the meat would be salted and added to the food stores while the hides would be tanned and used to protect the roofs of other, more permanent buildings against fire. Lastly, many of these improvised buildings had been home to the homeless. They were driven away, sometimes with kicks and pushes to follow, and forced elsewhere into the lower city.
Descending the stairs into the courtyard, the marshal surveyed as all space by the wall was cleared. His eyebrows turned into a slight frown as his eyes fell upon a handful of blackrobes. “Brother Dominic,” he called out to their leader, the court seer. “This is no place for priests, regardless of their position.” The last part was said with a glance towards the pendant that Dominic wore as sign of his rank.
“When we heard you were clearing the shacks by the walls, we thought to come and aid those dispossessed. At least in our temple they may sleep somewhere dry and safe,” Dominic explained as some of his brothers shepherded the beggars from the yard, shielding them from the soldiers ushering them away.
“I am surprised to see you here in person,” Leonard remarked in a neutral voice.
“I recently learned that I had been remiss in my duties towards the lower circle,” Dominic explained while moisturising his lips with his tongue. “There is much good we may do here.”
“Do not take too long,” the marshal cautioned. “Soon, there will be missiles hurling through the air and fires breaking out. We do not need any robes caught in between, hampering our efforts.”
“We have no intention of such,” the court seer replied with a bow. “But we must go where our sacred duty takes us,” he added and turned to leave with the remainder of his fellow black-robed priests.
The marshal watched them leave with an unimpressed face before he returned to his men preparing the city for the siege and barked new orders. Timber and granite, the same stone that was used to construct the walls, were being hauled and stored nearby to be ready for use in repairs. Great bundles of arrows were strategically dispersed along the fortifications along with supplies of torches and braziers to quickly illuminate the area in case of nightly assaults. In this manner, they spent the three days given to them.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.