From Foe to Friend
While the jarl of Vale and his family had returned home, their enemy was camped in the province of Marcaster near its eastern border of Ingmond. Despite their convincing victory against the forces under the landgrave of Marcaster, Athelstan’s army had not let discipline slip. Their camp was orderly with defences raised and sentinels everywhere. Scouts were dispatched across the area, extending the eyes of the Isarn commander for many miles. With the tents and earthworks raised, the soldiers were engaged in activities typical after combat. Wounds were tended to, weapons and armour inspected and repaired, and rations were distributed.
About half a mile away, the Isarn soldiers had many hundred men under strict watch. They were the remnant of Marcaster’s army, who had chosen surrender rather than flight. They sat on the ground, disarmed and dejected after their defeat. They were not bound, but fence posts had been erected and connected with rope to mark an enclosure inside which the prisoners were to remain. From the camp, two riders approached.
“I am told we have at least eight hundred men captive,” Eumund said as he and his uncle approached the prisoners.
“Yes, I heard the same,” Athelstan replied.
“We cannot afford to feed that many prisoners or drag them with us,” Eumund said insistently; a moment after, they were close enough that they stopped their horses.
“I have no intentions of either,” Athelstan declared and dismounted swiftly with his nephew following suit.
“So what will you do?” Eumund asked.
“As the old saying goes, ‘no wrath is greater than friend to foe turned’,” Athelstan remarked with an overbearing expression. “Let us see how the reverse holds true.” Soon after, they reached the enclosure and the prisoners.
“Men,” Athelstan called out. The captives raised their heads towards his voice. “I am Athelstan of Isarn. I imagine many of you have heard of me. Now you have also met me,” the commander said, removing his helmet and revealing his face fully. “You fought bravely on the field of battle. Your defeat and your present circumstances are not your fault. However, I have no interest in prisoners,” he called out, letting his gaze sweep over them, “nor do I have food to spare. Hence, you are all free to leave.”
A clamour broke out at these words, mostly consisting of sounds uttered in disbelief. “What, really?” somebody yelled out.
Athelstan raised his hands to command silence. “My enemy was the lord of Marcaster, not its people. I have no quarrel with any of you now that he is my prisoner. I assume many of you have farms and fields ripe for harvest. If not tended to, there will be starvation in Marcaster. Since I have no enemies living in these lands, I have no desire to see famine strike its people.”
“You’re really just going to let us go?” somebody else shouted.
“Upon my honour,” Athelstan swore. “More than that, I will give you a choice,” he added, once again letting his eyes search the crowd, resting momentarily upon the different men and instilling the feeling that he gazed directly at that person, spoke directly to that person. “As I said, you fought with courage. You showed your loyalty. I only lament that your lord could not reward such loyalty with victory.”
Athelstan paused briefly before continuing. “You took up arms because Lord Marcaster commanded you to. I now offer you the chance to wear the black and red colours for much better reasons. Fight for me!” the captain said fiercely, evoking further murmurs of incredulity. “I am Athelstan of Isarn! You know my reputation. At Cairn Donn ten years ago, I led an army starved, outnumbered, and I turned certain defeat to victory. You have seen me live up to that reputation today.”
The mutterings and whispers continued among the prisoners, and Athelstan raised his voice once more to be heard. “Isarn is known for another thing than its illustrious sons. Silver,” he said, stressing the first sound and making it reverberate through the crowd. “Any man that wears a surcoat with black swords will earn eight silver a day,” Athelstan declared, striking his fist against the emblem on his chest. “Starting from tomorrow and until the end of this war as well as a full share in any plunder taken.”
“The choice lies before you,” Athelstan said again after he had let his words sink in. “You may go west and return home. Or go east into camp and be equipped in red and black. You have the remainder of the night to decide,” he finished before he turned around and walked back to his horse, followed by Eumund.
“You are letting them go?” Eumund said in a low voice. “Is that wise?”
“I doubt they will run to Jarl Vale and join his army,” Athelstan said dismissively. “They fought because Marcaster is their liege, and he is now in our custody. They will not fight us again.”
“You do not think any of them will want revenge on us? Or their dislike of northerners will get the best of them,” Eumund speculated as he mounted his horse.
“I think most of them are peasants eager to return to their fields before the harvest spoils,” Athelstan replied, getting into the saddle. “Since we will need food if this campaign drags on, it is in our interest they return and see to those fields,” he declared, twisting the reins of his horse around his fist and spurring the beast towards their camp.
“Do you truly think any of them will want to fight for us, though?” Eumund wondered.
“Those who have no better prospects than eight silver a day will,” Athelstan said confidently.
“And you think they will be more loyal to us than they were to Marcaster?” Eumund asked sharply.
“Three things ensure a soldier’s loyalty,” Athelstan declared. “If you put food in his stomach, silver in his purse, and certainty in his heart that his commander will bring him victory, he will never waver. When dawn comes, our ranks will have swelled by hundreds of men, and they will fight better for us than they ever did for Marcaster.”
Returned to his tent inside the camp, Athelstan sank down on a chair and let out a sigh. “I will sleep well tonight,” he declared as his sergeant removed his greaves and bracers. When that was done, Athelstan unbuckled his sword belt and balanced the scabbard against the armrest of his chair. Then he stretched his shoulders before grabbing a cup of wine, taking a hearty draught.
Eumund sat opposite, having followed his uncle into the latter’s tent. Now he supplied himself with a cup as well, drinking more cautiously. “How did Marcaster have an army ready so quickly?” he asked. “Even if somebody warned him right after we took Middanhal, there would barely have been time for a message to reach Marbury, let alone for Marcaster to muster his men and march against us.”
“I do not know,” Athelstan admitted, putting goblet to lips again. “The only explanation would be that he had his armies gathered beforehand. For what purpose I cannot say,” he spoke when he had drunk his wine. “Perhaps he had same intentions as us, and we simply proved swifter.”
“Possibly,” Eumund said slowly. “I do not like it, though. If he was prepared, what of Vale? He has more men than us. If they are all gathered and prepared, waiting for us, we will be severely outnumbered,” he argued.
“I have told you before that numbers do not dictate battles,” Athelstan said sharply. “It is too late to lose heart. We have started this war, and we must finish it.”
“My resolve remains unshaken,” Eumund declared, emptying his cup. “I merely wonder what lies ahead of us. That we are not walking blindly into danger.”
“If they are ready for us, we shall meet them on the battlefield and triumph as we did today,” Athelstan replied. “Though I doubt they will be ready for us. Word would have reached us from Valcaster if the jarl was gathering his armies.”
“My father gathered his armies in preparation for taking Middanhal, and none were wiser to it,” Eumund countered. “If our enemies were thus surprised, should we not consider that we may be struck by the same blindness?”
“Did you not tell me that Vale and his entire family fled Middanhal before you struck?” Athelstan retorted. “I saw Theodstan myself at the camp in Lake Myr. Our actions clearly did not maintain the secrecy you would hope. Our enemy has his spies, as do we. They were warned of our actions, just as we will be should an army await us when we reach Vale.”
“If you are certain then, Uncle, what is our next step?” Eumund asked.
“With Marcaster as our prisoner, the way west is open. We can march unhindered through the province and invade Vale within days. We aim straight for Valcaster,” Athelstan said, raising a finger to accentuate his point. “The other cities are of no consequence. If we control the area around Valcaster, we will control the enemy. We keep him from gathering his forces, deal with them separately, and crush each of his armies.”
“How do you plan on taking the city? We will not be able to enclose it from the riverside, nor do we have the ships to put in a blockade.”
“I am aware,” Athelstan nodded. “I have in fact often pondered the question of besieging Valcaster in my exile. As a mental exercise to keep my wits sharp,” he added with a smile. “While we cannot take to the river ourselves, my thought is to use archers and fire arrows. Torch any ships that approach the city.”
“The river is wide,” Eumund argued. “No archer will be able to shoot an arrow across. If we are on the south-eastern bank, the ships can hold to the north-western and stay out of range.”
“We may need to procure what smaller vessels we can get and send some of our men to take the western bank,” Athelstan agreed. “If we get there first and enforce our blockade of the river, we will prevent them from crossing the river as well. Control both banks and it will effectively be a siege,” he claimed.
“And if they cross the river up north, such as Coldharbour?” Eumund questioned. “Our reach will not be that far. They can sweep down, crush our men caught on the wrong side of the waters.”
“Scouts will have to be in place to prevent that,” Athelstan nodded, “and we may have to alter our plans. But with a forced march, we will arrive before they can concentrate their forces. Once your father has mustered our remaining forces, he can march them towards Coldharbour. We will have destroyed Vale’s ability to wage war before he ever began to threaten us.”
The day after the battle, the Isarn army began its march southwest through the lands of Marcaster. With scouts and mounted vanguard sent ahead, the main body of the army moved in long columns with the commanders in front, and the rearguard protected the baggage train. It was also not only Athelstan and Eumund who headed the centre part of this procession. They had their two valuable prisoners ride alongside them. One was the jarl of Ingmond, brought along all the way from Middanhal since Isenhart’s feast, where he had been forced to surrender himself and his family. The other was newer to his condition; it was the landgrave of Marcaster, taken captive after losing the battle against the Isarn army.
“You are quiet today, Jarl Ingmond,” Eumund said with a light-hearted tone. “It was only a few days ago that you spoke without end of our imminent defeat. Your heart would warm, Lord Marcaster,” the young knight added as he turned his head to look at Marcaster riding behind him, “if you had heard the confidence Jarl Ingmond had in your ability to defeat us.”
Marcaster gave no reply, but Ingmond rose to the bait. “You confuse winning a battle with winning the war. The South and the Order have enough soldiers each to lose a hundred battles, and still you will find armies battering down the gates of Silfrisarn,” the jarl said hotly.
“There it is,” Eumund smiled. “I missed your conversation, my lord. These little outbursts do much to shorten the tedium of travel.”
“Must I remain in your close proximity?” Ingmond exclaimed. “I would rather walk with the train, surrounded by the lowliest servants than be further subjected to your company.”
“You are our guest,” Eumund said, “we could never agree to such a thing. A man of your standing must be treated with respect.”
“I am your prisoner,” Ingmond spat, “and I care little for any respect you would show me.”
“Perhaps not our guest by choice,” Eumund admitted in a casual tone, “but rules of hospitality still apply.”
“You could treat me however you wish, and I would be indifferent,” Ingmond claimed. “My only concern is for my wife and child that you forced me to leave behind with your butchers.”
“We are not savages,” Athelstan interjected, breaking his silence. “We have neither reason nor intention to harm your family.”
“Sir Roderic was your prisoner,” Ingmond countered in response. “That did not save him from mutilation or decapitation.”
“I do not condone what happened to Sir Roderic,” Athelstan said stiffly.
“Nor did you prevent it,” Ingmond said with bite in his words. “What guarantee do I have that my family is safe?”
“We kept our agreement in Inghold, did we not?” Eumund said forcefully. “The city surrendered, we were given what supplies we needed, and not a single person in your jarldom has been harmed.”
“It is not for the people in Inghold I am concerned,” Ingmond said acerbically, “but my wife and son in Middanhal. At the mercy of your father, the mad dog.”
At this insult, fury woke in Eumund’s eyes and he raised his hand to strike at the jarl. “Restrain yourself, Eumund!” Athelstan exclaimed. “We do not strike unarmed prisoners. We are not honourless villains,” he imprinted on his nephew, who lowered his hand again. His words brought a bitter laugh from the jarl, however.
“You have broken your vows, Athelstan,” Ingmond sneered. “You have committed treason many times over. I am to believe you are a man of honour? A notion worthy only of disdain,” he said contemptuously.
“Your words will not infuriate me,” Athelstan said coolly. “But you will answer for them one day. When my brother rules this realm, your position as jarl will be brought to question. I suggest you follow Lord Marcaster’s example and remain silent,” he told the jarl. “Eumund, ride ahead to the vanguard. Tell them to begin scouting for a suitable location to camp,” he ordered his nephew, who gestured for a dozen riders to follow him as he rode away to carry out Athelstan’s command.
In the southern part of the province of Marcaster, near the border to Korndale, lay its regional capital of Marbury. It lay on a flat plain, surrounded by the lush fields that characterised southern Adalrik and its neighbour of Korndale. This also made the city much less defensible. The river that provided the city with water had not been incorporated into its defences, which meant that the terrain provided no natural aid; Marbury was thus vulnerable from all sides with only its city walls to protect it. Half a mile to the north, the Isarn army stood arrayed. Its ranks had been bolstered by recruits from the provinces of Marcaster and Ingmond, men more interested in silver than politics, and it counted above five thousand. At the front were its commanders, Athelstan and Eumund. They had brought only one of their two prominent prisoners with them on this occasion.
“Your city looks beautiful, Lord Marcaster,” Athelstan remarked.
“I look forward to watching your men die before its walls,” was Marcaster’s only response.
“That is not my intention, though,” Athelstan retorted. “In fact, I planned that we will both ride down to its gates, and then you will order the city to surrender.”
Marcaster barked a brief laugh. “Why would I ever do that?”
“Because if you do not, I will have you killed right now,” Athelstan said casually before he turned to look at his prisoner.
“You would not dare,” Marcaster said disdainfully, although a nervous expression flittered momentarily across his face.
“I imagine Sir Roderic thought similarly,” Eumund inserted.
“That was your brother,” Marcaster argued, almost shouting. “I thought you were better. I am your captive, I am a lord, you cannot mistreat me!”
“It will bring me no pleasure to do so,” Athelstan admitted with a soft voice. “But I need your city to control this province and as a staging point for our invasion of Vale. And I am prepared to seize whatever means I must to gain it.”
“You break all honour!” Marcaster burst out, sounding furious, but the anger dissipated from his voice almost instantly. “You will be despised for this,” he added weakly.
“Most likely I already am,” Athelstan admitted casually. “If threatening your life will spare the lives of my soldiers, I consider that a good bargain.”
“You bluff,” Marcaster said with narrowed eyes. “Even if I refuse, you will not go through with this.”
“Unfortunately, more is at stake than merely you, Lord Marcaster,” Athelstan spoke slowly. “You see, if Jarl Ingmond or any other noblemen in Middanhal is made aware that you refused our demands, they will soon refuse as well. If you do not acquiesce, I will be forced to have you executed on principle alone,” the knight said apologetically.
“You would not dare,” Marcaster said, though his voice held little conviction.
“If I am forced to storm that city,” Athelstan added with an edge to his words, “it will be sacked. I will not guarantee the lives of your family. However,” he continued in a lighter voice, “if it surrenders, not a single copper will be looted. We will take what supplies we need. Only food, nothing else. Not one drop of blood shall be shed. You have my word.”
“Your word,” Marcaster said bitterly. “What worth does the word of an honourless man hold?”
“I may not have given that impression,” Athelstan countered, “but I would like to preserve what remains of my honour. You need not be my enemy, Lord Marcaster. I have no reason to cause you or your family ill. I will leave a garrison behind with strict orders not to cause the slightest offence to your people. They will hardly notice the war.”
Doubt moved across Marcaster’s face. “You will not harm my children? My wife?”
Athelstan shook his head. “If the city surrenders, it will be spared in full. I swear by the Seven and Eighth.”
Marcaster swallowed before he slowly spoke. “Agreed then.”
“Very well,” Athelstan smiled. “Let us ride down and bring the good news to the people of Marbury.” With those words, the commander of Isarn spurred his horse forward; he was followed by his nephew, his prisoner, and the vanguard of his army as they rode towards the gate of the city.