While the outlanders were digging through the barricade, Leander and Hubert hurried towards the palace. The city streets were almost deserted; the siege had crippled it, and all those not occupied in its defence were staying indoors. Only the few soldiers guarding the district gates watched their progress as the king and count ran as fast as their armour would allow. “How many Blades can you gather quickly?” asked Leander as they raced through the second circle.
“Most of them are scattered around the grounds, and some have been sent to reinforce the walls,” Hubert said, thinking out loud. “Maybe ten or so.”
“Get them to the royal wing, but get provisions first. We will have a long march ahead of us,” Leander ordered.
“As you say,” the old warrior acknowledged, and they separated after entering the first circle.
While Hubert went to gather his men, Leander marched straight to the council chamber. Many eyes turned as they recognised the king, but none dared question the reason for his presence. Reaching his destination, he found only the palace steward and the queen’s scribe at work. “Where is the queen?” Leander shouted with his remaining breath.
“Tending to the wounded,” the steward said anxiously. “Is something the matter, Your Majesty?” Leander did not reply but simply turned and sped away.
He walked down some of the hallways, gazing into every room while calling out her name. Every time, he was only met with confused looks from norns, servants, and lay brothers or the blank stares of the wounded in their delirium. He continued doing this room after room until the futility of his method became apparent; there were far too many halls, chambers, and corridors to search. “Where is the queen?” he demanded to know of a priestess. “Where are the patients she is caretaker for?”
“The royal wing,” the norn said with a frown. “She tends to them every morning.”
Leander did not waste another moment but left immediately, rushing towards the royal wing. Again he went from room to room, shouting for her, but none to reply; those with the heaviest wounds were placed here, in many cases simply waiting to die, and there was barely any attendants. Finally he reached what had been his own chamber, and he saw the young norn Zoe. “Where is the queen?” he all but yelled, and she nearly dropped the jar in her hands.
“She’s not here,” the priestess stammered. “She only helps me in the morning.”
“Where is she then?” Leander asked, breathing heavily and leaning against the doorframe; his furious energy was subsiding.
“I don’t know,” Zoe admitted with fright in her voice. “I have not seen her since morning.”
“The steward said she left to tend to the wounded,” Leander argued in a hoarse voice. “Are these not her patients?”
“Only in the morning,” Zoe reiterated. “If Her Majesty left to help, it would be elsewhere.”
“Where?” Leander roared with frustration.
“Maybe the west wing?” Zoe offered in a nervous voice. “That is where the physicians work, they always need help.” Leander turned without a word and ran westwards.
The smell of blood was fresh in the air in the western part of the palace. They were operating on soldiers struck by arrows in a way that the arrowhead could not easily be retrieved or removed, or those with crushed limbs that had to be amputated to save the rest of the body, and many other horrifying scenarios. Leander did not hesitate as he took in the gruesome sight, merely glancing over the halls as he passed through the wing. “Theodora!” he called again and again. When a young woman stopped cleaning a vicious-looking gash on a soldier’s stomach, she was hard to recognise. There was no diadem in her hair, which was not elegantly set either but simply tied back from her face. Her sleeves were pulled up, and there were bloodstains on not only her hands but her dress as well.
“Leander,” she exclaimed, “what is the matter? Why are you here?”
“Come with me,” he urged her, beckoning towards the door.
“I am occupied,” she replied with a gesture towards the soldier whose wound she was cleansing.
“One of the sisters will finish for you,” Leander told her and motioned for one of the norns to take over. He grabbed hold of Theodora’s arm and pulled her with him out of the hall.
“Leander, you are frightening me. What is the matter?” Theodora demanded to know.
Leander lessened his pace and slackened his hold on her arm as they walked towards the royal wing with less speed. “We have to leave,” he muttered quietly, “through the siege tunnels.”
“What?” Theodora came to an abrupt halt.
“The outlanders are breaking through if they have not already,” Leander explained, still keeping his voice hushed. “We have very little time before they breach the district walls as well, and we must escape.”
“I cannot leave,” Theodora protested. “Think of all the people here who will be left behind.”
“I had the same reaction as you,” Leander said impatiently, “and I had to concede as well. We are wasting time.”
“No!” Theodora exclaimed, refusing to walk further. “I alone choose where I go, and you may not decide on my behalf,” she said forcefully, staring intently at him with furious eyes.
Leander stopped as well and turned to look at her. “I understand. You want to stay because you cannot bear to abandon your people,” he spoke, gesturing to the people lying wounded in the rooms surrounding them. “Because you think they will despise you for running, they will think you chose to save yourself and that you left them to their fate.” Theodora had opened her mouth to formulate some form of reply, but she closed her lips again without speaking.
Leander continued. “That is exactly how I thought. It has taken every ounce of strength for me to fight every day on the walls, to prove I am not a coward. And in one moment, I undid all of that by coming here while our soldiers are preparing to die in the final defence of this city,” Leander said, his voice growing quieter and yet more insisting as he stepped close to her. “But if you and I are captured, we will be puppets to the outlanders. We will be chess pieces in their subjugation of our home. We must escape to continue the fight. We must suffer the blow to our pride that we may free our people when the time comes.”
Leander stared into Theodora’s eyes, and each word he spoke had the effect of a slap to her face. She could not bear his gaze and turned, staring at the many wounded soldiers and those who tirelessly worked to cure and alleviate their ills. “But I am their queen,” she said weakly. “How can I abandon my people?”
“Because there are thousands upon thousands in this realm,” Leander said, taking hold of her hand. “They are all our people, and they need us to be strong. To make the difficult choice.” Theodora’s eyes and attention were upon the quiet moans and pangs of suffering, the men slowly bleeding through their bandages, the norns and lay brothers feeding their wards and wiping their foreheads clear of fever sweat. “Please, my heart, please,” Leander urged Theodora, placing her hand against his torso. “We must go.”
She finally turned, and with dazed eyes, she looked at his hand covering hers. “Am I truly your heart?” she asked with a vulnerable voice, lifting her gaze to meet his.
“Always,” Leander promised her. “But it will break if we do not leave. For your sake, for mine, for the realm’s. We must leave.” Theodora swallowed, and she bit her lip, but finally she nodded in consent.
The pair swiftly marched through the palace until they reached the royal wing. “I cannot leave without my mother,” Theodora said as they walked quickly. “That I will not concede to.”
“I would not wish otherwise,” Leander nodded. “I suppose,” he said hesitantly, “we should bring my mother as well. And,” he finally added with further reluctance as they approached their bedchamber, “your aunt. Both her and my mother could be valuable hostages.”
“You,” Theodora said to the guard who patrolled the corridor in the royal wing. “Bring the ladies Beatrice, Diane, and Irene to my personal chamber. All three of them, now, no time to waste.” The Blade gave the queen a bow and departed without a word.
Once inside the chamber, both the king and queen looked towards the large bed that they shared. “I have never actually been in the tunnels,” Theodora admitted.
“Me neither,” Leander added. “Let us hope we were not deceived.” With a joint effort, they pushed the bed aside. It was surprisingly light and not difficult to remove; apparently, it was not a massive construction but hollow. Then they pulled away the rug on which the bed normally rested, revealing the wooden planks of the floor beneath.
Leander took a few probing steps onto the planks, stomping on them; the ensuing sounds revealed that a small area was empty underneath the floor. Taking his dagger, Leander stuck it in between the planks and loosened one of them; it willingly gave away so it might be removed. With one gone, Leander stuck his hand down and removed the others. “At least the tunnel is there,” Leander remarked.
“Hopefully it leads where we want,” Theodora replied. She went through certain drawers, retrieving heirloom jewellery, the official seal of the kingdom, and other such valuables of particular importance.
“We will need candles, light,” Leander said aloud. “There must be a tinderbox somewhere, I will go and find some fire,” he declared and quickly departed.
Having gathered everything irreplaceable, Theodora looked around until she found a shawl. She dumped everything into it, gathered the corners of the shawl and tied a ribbon around it, creating an improvised bag. After that, she found a cloak for herself and put it on. Suddenly she heard footsteps outside the door, and she froze until it opened, revealing her mother and aunt.
“Theodora,” exclaimed Irene, “what is the meaning of this? Why have you summoned us in this manner?”
“Irene,” Beatrice said softly, stepping inside with her eyes upon the revealed escape tunnel. “Look.”
“Ah,” Irene merely replied.
Beatrice stepped over and took her daughter’s hands. “Has it really come to this?”
“Leander believes so,” Theodora nodded. “We have to leave.”
“Like this?” Irene exclaimed. “Do you know where that path will take us? Where we go next?”
“No,” Theodora admitted hesitantly, “but I am sure Leander has a plan of some sort.”
“Glad you are confident at least,” Irene snorted. Before more could be said, the guard returned with Diane. “Her as well?” Irene scoffed.
“She is the king’s mother and potential leverage against him,” Theodora explained with exasperation.
“Leverage? What is going on, this brute would not tell me anything,” Diane said in a huff, motioning towards the Blade who had accompanied her.
“The city is on the verge of being overrun,” Beatrice explained and pointed towards the hatch in the floor. “We have to flee.”
“There is a tunnel in the royal bedchamber?” Diane exclaimed with wide eyes.
“You did not know?” Irene said with a triumphant voice. “I suppose you would not, considering you are not a member of the family.”
Further replies were interrupted by Leander’s return. “Incredible how difficult it was to find a tinderbox, let alone light a candle,” he complained, arriving with a lit candle in one hand and a few unused torches in the other. “I have newfound respect for the servants who do this every morning.”
“Are we supposed to eat the candles as well?” Irene asked with a sneer. “Or what did you intend for when we come out of the mountain and find ourselves on the heath?”
“Irene,” Leander said curtly, “shut up or be left behind.” Irene’s mouth flew open in shock, but she seemed unable to formulate a reply.
Next to arrive were two young men; one was clad as a warrior, and the other was carrying a lute. “Pardon our lateness,” Baldwin said, gasping for air; both he and Troy appeared out of breath. “This one would not come here unless we got his instrument.”
“You have your weapon, I have mine,” Troy said, trying to accompany it with a shrug; his state of exertion kept him from completing any kind of motion other than panting, however.
“This?” Diane said with raised eyebrows. “You are bringing a bard and a boy in armour as well?”
“I am Baldwin of Hareik,” the squire said fiercely, “squire of the Order and defender of the Seven Realms. I do not know you, my lady, but you will speak with the courtesy that every Order soldier is deserving of.”
“You will let him speak to your own mother this way?” Diane said stunned.
“I like him more than you, Mother, so yes,” Leander said dryly.
“You are still a traitor to the Crown,” Theodora said coldly to Diane. “Do not mistake my acceptance of your presence for a pardon. Only your kinship with my husband is saving you from the axe.” With Diane silenced, the queen turned to Leander. “We will need food and water for the journey,” she said to him.
Leander turned his head upon hearing numerous approaching footsteps. “I believe your answer is arriving.”
The room became crowded as Hubert arrived along with nearly a dozen of his Blades, most of them carrying supplies and bags with provisions. “Are we ready?” asked the count.
“I believe so,” Leander nodded and gave the torches away before he lit them with the candle.
“Allow me to step first,” Hubert suggested, “in case the path is unsafe. We should lock the chamber behind us, probably, delay discovery of our flight.”
“No need,” said one of the Blades as he stepped forward. “I will stay behind.”
“Glaukos?” Hubert said questioningly.
“Pursuit like this will be easy,” the guard explained, pointing towards the open hatch with the rug and bed pushed aside. “I will put things in order and mask your escape. With fortune on our side, they will never know how you left.”
“Glaukos,” Hubert said in a thick voice, “you make an old man proud and sad at the same time.”
“You have our gratitude,” Theodora said, to which Leander nodded in assent.
“Shall we go?” Diane asked impatiently, earning her a few looks, but Hubert did as suggested and quickly stepped down the stairs into the waiting darkness.
The tunnel was short and narrow, and for a long while, it only allowed passage of one person at a time. None spoke but only stared at the back of the person straight ahead; that was all they could see in the dim light of the few torches spread among the people of the procession. The smoke they emitted had nowhere to escape and made most eyes water, and there was constant coughing to be heard. Any sense of time was lost with nothing to act as markers except for the increasing weariness from walking on uneven terrain.
Eventually, the tunnel widened enough to allow two people walking side by side; it seemed to be a naturally occurring cave, which the ancient heathmen had simply connected with the palace on the south side of Mount Tothmor through an artificial tunnel. The passageway not only got wider but also taller, allowing the smoke more room to disperse and to float higher, and most took relieved breaths.
Theodora walked in the centre of the group, and by chance, Baldwin was in front of her. When the tunnel width allowed it, she increased her pace slightly to reach his side. “If I heard correctly, you are Baldwin?” she asked of him, striking up conversation. “The king mentioned you as one who had joined him and Count Esmarch in the defence, though he gave no further details.”
“Baldwin of Hareik at my lady queen’s service,” the squire nodded.
“Vidrevi,” Theodora said contemplatively, “you are a forester. What great distance you have travelled to fight here.”
“I go where I am sent,” Baldwin said with calm in his voice. “The Order sent all its available knights here, which included their squires and sergeants.”
“Even so, you have crossed all of Adalmearc to be here,” Theodora said. “You do not feel any longing having exchanged the great forests with our heaths?”
“There was nothing of particular import that kept in Hareik,” Baldwin said. “My father’s name is not mine to speak,” he added after a moment’s hesitation.
“Same as the king,” Theodora smiled, although the darkness made it difficult to see. “Though he has never let such weigh him down.”
“Nor me,” Baldwin said. “I was given to the Order, and the Order gave me what I needed. Any man can bear the spurs with honour, regardless of his origin. That is why it has my loyalty.”
“That is a noble sentiment to have,” Theodora commented in a light tone.
“Nothing remarkable,” Baldwin replied casually, “when compared to my lady queen. Becoming queen regnant at such a young age is surely a testament to my lady queen’s character.”
“You are familiar with the history of the Hæthian court?” Theodora asked surprised.
“I am squire to Sir William,” Baldwin explained. “He has at times spoken of his youth in Tothmor.”
“I see,” Theodora said slowly. “You sound as if you do not expect he has perished in battle.”
“I do not,” Baldwin confirmed.
“I am not well-versed in military matters,” Theodora admitted hesitantly, “so I cannot pass judgement.”
“Oh no, it is most likely that the knights fell upon the field,” Baldwin acknowledged with a shrug. “But if any could extricate them, it would be Sir William. He is the epitome of knighthood, my lady queen. Only his honour is stronger than his sword. I will not believe him dead unless I see his body with my own eyes.”
“I wish I had your strength of convictions,” Theodora said quietly, “in all things.”
“You are a monarch, my lady queen, I am a squire. Ruler and servant. What is necessary for a servant may be useless to a ruler. It is my understanding that my lady queen has shown great wisdom in all respects.”
“Baldwin,” Theodora said light-heartedly, “I see why the king enjoys your company.”
While Theodora was engaged in conversation with Baldwin, her husband had moved to the front of the small group. “How long do you think before we are out of the mountain?” Leander asked of Hubert.
“Maybe a day’s march, maybe half,” Hubert suggested. “Hard to say. None of us know how far the path extends.”
“We may have to take rest soon,” Leander told him. “We probably cannot take the whole march in one stretch.”
“As you say,” Hubert accepted with his focus on the darkness ahead of him, which his torch valiantly did its best to dispel. The tunnel narrowed slightly again, and Leander could not walk side by side with the count but had to remain behind him. This meant he could not see Hubert’s expression, and his next words were spoken with hesitation.
“I did not think of it while we were hastening to escape the palace,” Leander began a lengthy explanation. “I had Theodora’s mother and aunt brought and mine own, so they would not be made captives. Yet in my haste, I did not think of the family members of others. Such as yourself, Lord Hubert,” Leander finished, sounding slightly anxious. He could only stare at the back of Hubert’s head, but the count did not seem to flinch.
“If you are referring to my son in the dungeons,” Hubert said calmly, “you need not fret, boy. His actions brought him there. Responsibility falls on his shoulders. Not mine or yours.”
“Have you been to see him? Since everything that has happened,” Leander asked, unable to elaborate properly.
“Once,” Hubert said. “Before the siege began. After, I never felt like I had time.”
“I see. I will not pry,” Leander simply said.
“Pry all you want, boy,” Hubert growled. “We did not speak much in any case. He has violated all that I stand for.”
“Still, I would understand if this grieves you. The loss of your only son,” Leander explained haltingly.
“I have many sons,” Hubert interjected.
“I thought –” Leander said confused without finishing his thought.
“Some were given to me when they were four, some when they were seven, some when they were nearly adults. But regardless of the age at which they entered my tutelage, I have many sons. Certainly it is displeasing that one of them should have fallen astray,” Hubert said; his voice was now entirely neutral, and still Leander could not see in the darkness what expression was upon the count’s face. “But there are others of whom I am proud. And some of my sons are with me in this very moment. You need not think further on the matter, boy,” Hubert reassured the king.
“If you say so,” Leander mumbled with an uncertain voice.
“The passage expands up ahead,” Hubert uttered with a throw of his head in forward direction. “I think we can take a short rest in a moment,” the count declared and said nothing further.
Except for one of the Blades who brought up the rear, the three elderly ladies of the court took up the last positions of the procession. Irene, Beatrice, and Diane as the last. Neither their shoes nor their clothes had ever been intended for lengthy journeys on foot, and the consequences could be felt. All three of them sank to the floor with relieved sighs as a halt was announced. “We could all use some water,” Hubert mentioned, and some of the Blades opened their packs and distributed some flasks for people to drink from. “I will scout ahead, see if the opening is near,” the count continued and walked on ahead with Leander for company.
Theodora and Baldwin sat down, continuing their conversation while Troy, after slackening his thirst, tested the condition of his lute and played a few simple tunes. This drew the attention of most of the Blades, who sat down nearby to listen. In this manner, most members of the group distracted themselves from the situation.
“My feet,” Diane complained, investigating damage done to her shoes. “I was not meant for such ordeals.”
“You prefer to be lying on your back, I imagine,” Irene said acerbically.
“We are all hurting,” Beatrice tried to interject, but to no avail.
“At least there are some who would find such a situation involving me appealing,” Diane retorted.
“Now, now,” Beatrice attempted once more. “There is no need –”
“You should have stuck to that singular skill,” Irene sneered. “It did not go so well for you when you tried branching out.”
“Oh, spare me!” Diane exclaimed. “You may have succeeded in your schemes for a while, but my son is king now, whereas you have nothing but the past to cling to.”
“How dare you,” Irene spat. “As if any of that is your doing. The only thing you have come close to achieving is your son’s execution. Be thankful that neither the queen nor I desired that.” The heated exchange could no longer be ignored by the other members of the travelling party, and Theodora looked as if about to speak. She was pre-empted by her mother.
“Oh gods above!” came an outburst from Beatrice. “The two of you! Irene, I have watched you manipulate my daughter for twelve years and tolerated it because I thought it necessary, holding my tongue however distasteful and loathsome it was. And Diane, since he was born, you have used your own son as a pawn in your petty schemes until you finally stepped up into full-blown treason. Understand this, it is over! We are fleeing court,” Beatrice said with a clenched jaw while her hands curled into fists.
She was not done, however, and continued speaking. ”Irene, you are not the dowager queen. Diane, you are not the king’s mother. You are two old women bickering like children while we are running for our lives. If either of you breathe one more word, I will have the guards cut out both your tongues. And if the guards refuse,” Beatrice finished her invective while sending incensed looks to both women, “I will take a knife and do it myself. Now be quiet!” she exclaimed, standing up and leaving everyone staring at her in stunned silence. “Shall we continue? I believe we are rested. My feet no longer hurt,” she said, directed at Theodora. The queen nodded without speaking, and everybody slowly got up as they gathered their wits. As the last two, Diane and Irene joined the others in continuing down the route where Leander and Hubert had gone ahead.
The small group walked about an hour when they come across Leander heading towards them. “Our exit is just ahead,” he said to Theodora as they reached each other, and he turned around to walk beside her in that direction. “We will be out soon. Is everybody still in good spirits?”
“There was some tension,” Theodora said, “but my mother handled it.”
“She always did have a calming influence,” Leander remarked without seeing the expression his words caused to appear on Theodora’s face.
“Where is Lord Hubert?” the queen asked.
“We scouted the surroundings for a while,” Leander explained. “He is still in the vicinity, searching for any presence of outlanders.”
“Is that likely?” Theodora said concerned.
“As best we could determine, we are northwest of the city and probably due north of the enemy camp. Not with as great a distance between them as we could have wanted,” Leander admitted. “We should head straight north along the mountain, rather than go west and cross the heath.”
“Because we are easily spotted on flat terrain,” Theodora said in understanding. “That makes sense. North and then west once we are beyond enemy reach.”
“The question will be what to do afterwards,” Leander said slowly. “Even if we reach Adalrik, last we heard the jarls were battling each other. We will not find reinforcements there, perhaps not even a safe haven.”
“We will go south to Korndale,” Theodora said tight-lipped. “My cousin can explain to me in person why he failed to aid us.”
Soon after, they reached the end of the caves and entered the light. The sun was still some distance from the horizon; it was just the time for the first evening bell to have rung if they had still been back in Tothmor. There would be no tolling of bells in the city this evening, however. The small group of nobles and soldiers took another break, enjoying the sunlight and the fresh air.
It did not last long before Hubert returned. “I saw no sign of the enemy,” he said, “but that is no promise they are absent. We should stick to the mountain and keep walking while we have daylight to see. Put as much distance between us and them, just in case they have discovered the tunnels and are in pursuit,” he suggested.
“As you say, Lord Hubert. You may lead on,” Theodora commanded. The count inclined his head briefly, and the rest of the party rose to follow him north.
Their speed was slow as the terrain was rocky and uneven; the tunnels had to some extent been man-made and thus more even, but this area was desolate and not meant for travels. As always, Hubert was in the lead with the king and queen close behind him and the Blades scattered across the group, keeping a watchful eye.
They had not been walking for long when one of the guards called out. “Your Majesties,” he said loudly and pointed west. “Look!” Over the open heath and against the horizon could be seen the shape of a rider. The distance was so great, they could see nothing but the black form of a man mounted on a horse, and presumably, he could see nothing more of them, only small shapes on foot against the mountainside; such would be enough, however. The rider turned his horse and departed swiftly from the reach of their vision.
“Pick up the pace,” said Hubert. “We walk through the night, lose them in the dark.” A few sighs born either out of fear or exasperation could be heard, but none complained. They increased their speed and continued walking north along Mount Tothmor.
The sun was slowly sinking on the horizon; it was still summer even if late in the season. Several members of the small procession kept glancing west, scouting for riders as well as measuring the remainder of the sun’s journey. The shadows grew long, and they might have breathed more easily if they were not so exhausted; then their fears materialised on the horizon.
A pack of riders numbering around twenty appeared, their direction clear; it was east, headed straight for the small band. “Faster!” Hubert commanded, and several of the Blades took hold of the elderly ladies’ arms to help them keep their balance and to walk swifter.
A quarter of an hour passed in anxious silence except for the sound of boots hitting ground. Finally, Hubert raised a hand to signal they would stop. “They are too swift,” he admitted, crouching and leaning on his knees as he gasped for air. “They will reach us before nightfall.”
“We will have to fight,” Leander said in acknowledgement, and the count gave a faint nod.
“Give me a weapon,” Theodora told her husband in between deep breaths.
“Let the Blades handle the fight,” Leander replied, equally short on air. “Them and the count and me. Not you.”
“I will,” Theodora consented, “but I will not stand here defenceless. Your knife at least.”
Leander did not argue but handed her his knife. He stepped close and embraced her tightly, not letting go. “Whatever happens –” he said without conclusion.
“I know,” Theodora replied, not letting go either.
Hubert’s eyes glanced over the group. About ten Blades, Baldwin, Leander, and himself. All of them armed only with swords, as they had not brought shields or spears with them, facing twice as many riders. He was an old and experienced warrior and knew how weapons, horses, and terrain mattered in the calculations of war; there was only one possible outcome. “We need more defensive grounds,” he told his Blades.
“The area breaks more over there, milord,” said one of them. “That will slow the speed of their horses.”
“We need those unarmed kept back,” Hubert considered.
“There,” another Blade pointed out. “The cliff cuts into the mountainside. We cover the entrance.”
“It is wide,” Hubert said doubtingly.
“Better than being vulnerable from all sides,” argued a third.
“Very well,” Hubert agreed. “Help the ladies. We make our stand there.”
There was brief commotion as the group broke up and began moving as directed, but then Baldwin suddenly ran forward several steps and stared towards the band of approaching riders. “Something odd,” he said as he strained his eyes.
“Baldwin, you have your position!” Hubert growled.
“Their coats,” Baldwin said undeterred. The riders were now so close that details of their appearance could be discerned. “They are not red. They look – black,” he exclaimed, nearly shouting the last word. “The star,” he said in repetition, “the star! I see him, I see him!” he yelled and caught all by surprise as he sprinted forward towards the group of riders. He did not do so with a brandished sword but with arms raised above his head, waving wildly. The rest of the group stood amazed, unable to interpret this new development. Their expressions turned into pure astonishment as the rider in front stopped his horse just shy of Baldwin, dismounted, and embraced the squire.
“I will be Hel’s whore,” Hubert cursed. “That boy was right. He will be insufferable to listen to now.”
“Right?” Leander asked in utter confusion. “What about?”
“No man stronger in battle,” Hubert muttered. “Did not calculate that,” he added, but his gruff exterior could not remain and finally it cracked into a grin. “Do you not recognise their surcoats yet? Those are Order knights, and I will bet my title that the knight with Baldwin is Sir William.”
The riders closed the final distance between the royal retinue and themselves in a more leisurely pace, William and Baldwin walking together. The squire wore a blissful expression, while William’s was neutral. “Your Majesty,” he said, inclining his head towards Theodora.
“Sir William,” she replied courteously. “It would seem your reputation is well-earned.”
“We were fortunate in the battle. Once we had delayed the enemy’s pursuit of our comrades, we were able to pull away and make our own retreat. Unfortunately it was forced into a different direction, and thus we were unable to re-join you in defence of the city.”
“You have been out on the moors ever since?” Leander asked impressed.
“I along with more than three hundred knights,” William nodded. There were audible sighs of relief from several of those present upon hearing that such a number of the Order’s elite warriors had survived the battle. “We have split into smaller divisions to harass and observe the enemy as best possible. One of my own company spotted you, and we thought you were an outlander patrol.”
“We are blessed that you have kept such watch,” Theodora told the knight. “Without you, this area might have been crawling with them and our escape far more doubtful.”
“We did as we should,” William simply said. “But I presume the city has fallen? You fled through the escape tunnels?”
“Oh, so I should presume these tunnels are common knowledge to everyone but me,” Diane complained, though none paid her heed.
“It has,” Leander said with a thick voice. “We defended it as best we could, but we could not last. They were relentless, exhausting all our defences.”
“I am glad to see you were able to avoid capture or death,” William said, glancing at Hubert and Baldwin. “The marshal?”
“Sir Leonard led the final stand,” Hubert said, his voice almost neutral. “His honour has been made immortal.”
William was silent for a moment at these tidings. “I did not know him well, but he was my marshal when I first trained in the Order. His honour, as you say, will not be forgotten.”
“We will forget nothing,” Theodora said with a strong voice. “We will return to retake what is ours.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty. There is little more for my men to achieve at present,” William said, nodding again. “With Tothmor gone, the enemy will overrun the rest of Hæthiod easily. We will retreat alongside Your Majesty,” he said and gestured towards Theodora, “and my knights can be the spearhead of a new army when we return.”
“I agree with your plan, boy,” Hubert said. “Though surely the rest of the realm will not be overrun so quickly. The outlanders must have lost thousands in their assaults upon Tothmor.”
“No doubt,” William agreed, “but they have received reinforcements. Another army, although much smaller than the first, has crossed the Langstan. I suspect they will besiege the southern counties next. None of the cities has the defences Tothmor has. It will take them a few weeks at most.”
“Another army?” Leander intervened. “Did you say the outlanders have sent another army?”
“More like reinforcements,” William corrected. “Probably their supply lines did not allow them to join the initial invasion. But yes, my men have seen it with their own eyes, and presumably more were to arrive before we had to withdraw our scouts. I would not be surprised if there are twenty thousand outlanders spread out over Hæthiod.” Silence followed as this number sank in. “Forgive me, you wear the royal arms of Hæthiod, but I do not recognise you,” William spoke to Leander.
“Sir William, this is my husband, Leander, king of Hæthiod,” Theodora introduced, taking hold of Leander’s arm. She still held Leander’s knife in her other hand but finally relaxed her hold and returned it to her husband.
“Probably other titles in there as well, but it gets unwieldy fast,” Leander said lightly. “Leander will do.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” William replied, inclining his head.
“Twenty thousand,” Hubert suddenly exclaimed. “Are you certain?”
“It is an estimate,” William said with a shrug. “Based on their initial numbers, what we presume they lost at the battle and afterwards taking the city, and then added what we have seen of reinforcements. More are on their way,” the knight said ominously. “Train after train of supplies. They have an arrow for every man, woman, and child in the Seven Realms. This is not merely an invasion of Hæthiod. I cannot think otherwise than that they have designs upon all of Adalmearc.”
Once again, none knew what to say when faced with this revelation. At length William spoke again. “It is almost night,” he said, grabbing the reins of his horse. “I will send some of the men to gather the others. The rest of us should continue marching. With the city in their hands, we must expect the outlanders to send patrols in force to take control of the surroundings.”
“Of course,” Theodora accepted. “Let us continue.”
“Those weary can borrow our horses,” William offered, and while some of the knights rode west to bring word, the others dismounted and gave their steeds to the worn members of the queen’s retinue. When all were ready, the band with its new members continued on a journey leading north and west towards war-torn Adalrik.
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