Sharpen the Sword
The respite for the Order troops lasted only a few days. In order to obscure the truth for as long as possible, Richard had deployed a number of scouts to the north to intercept any Isarn soldiers that might approach Middanhal; it was limited how long such a major event could remain unnoticed, however, and once word reached Silfrisarn, the northern army of Isarn marched towards Middanhal. In response, the Order readied itself to ride out and face them.
The knights had not been idle either in those few days afforded to them. Old veterans and others with skill in arms had been recruited to fill the gaps in the ranks; the remainder of the conscripts, young men too inexperienced to do little else but die in a battle were left behind to garrison the city. In the end, they managed to stretch the Order army to the point where two thousand men stood gathered in the courtyards of the Citadel and upon the Arnsweg, ready for departure. It was less than half of what they could expect to face, but their numbers would double with reinforcements from Theodstan, and spirits were high; the capture of Middanhal had proven that the gods looked upon the Order and its champions with favour.
Richard and Brand were found ahead of the column that stood ready to march, each mounted on one of the few horses that remained in the Citadel stables. Nearby was Theodoric; since his own troops would be committed to the army, it was his right to join them in battle. He kept himself at a distance from the Order commanders, however, and formed his own small band with his thanes.
“We find ourselves here again,” Arndis remarked with assumed light-heartedness. She was standing by Brand’s horse, looking up at her brother.
“This time, the destination is much closer. It will be some days, a week at most, I wager,” Brand assured her. He leaned down and spoke his next words with a lowered voice. “Take care. The city is lightly garrisoned, and the streets will be unsafe as a result. You should not leave the Citadel,” he cautioned her.
She glanced behind her where two kingthanes stood observant. “I will be fine,” Arndis promised. “Reserve your concern for yourself. I shall be most cross if you get hurt.”
“Understood,” Brand replied with an honest smile. “See you soon, Sister.” He squeezed her hand before he straightened to sit upright in his saddle. “Sir Richard, shall we?”
The knight stretched his neck. “Let us,” he said with a grin and waved his hand to his bannerman. The ensign waved his banner, giving the signal for the army to begin its march.
Meanwhile, the city itself was slowly finding its way back to normal after the battle. The market on the Temple square was opened once more, and the Temple itself was soon receiving its regular number of visitors. The norns and lay brothers had their hands full tending to the many wounded, and robes of every colour could be found trawling Lowtown to alleviate the many burdens that the war and occupation had struck its inhabitants with. The gates of the city were still closed, however, and none could leave Middanhal. The reason for this was Isenhart’s presence with his army to the north and Athelstan somewhere to the south with his. As long as there were enemy armies in either direction, the gates would remain shut. What happened next to the beleaguered city, however, none of its defenders had predicted.
With Richard and Brand gone, leadership of Middanhal and its garrison belonged undisputedly to Theobald; as the only other knight present, Fionn served as an unofficial second-in-command. Two days after the Order army rode out, a messenger sprinted from the southern gate across the city to reach the Citadel and locate the captain with urgent news. Envoys were at the gate demanding to speak with whoever was currently lord of the city, envoys that had come at the head of an army now approaching Middanhal.
The banners marching towards the capital were red like any jarl house, but the entwined colour was gold and not black; the emblem had spiralling suns and not crossed swords. They did not arrive from the eastern branch of the Kingsroad as it split down into southern Adalrik from Middanhal; the soldiers came from the west, Coldharbour, to be precise. As Athelstan invaded Vale, the jarl’s response had been to shore up the defences of his cities and send his available soldiers up along the river to Coldharbour along with engineers and materials for siege engines. From here, the army moved towards Middanhal, stretching out like a coiling snake with countless banners and an enormous baggage train; whether it was war or feasts, the customary Vale extravagance was at play.
At the head of this army rode the jarl’s nephew and heir, Konstantine, wearing gilded armour and a surcoat stitched with golden threads. By his side rode Arion, more humble in his undyed clerk’s tunic, and behind them came a score of thanes.
“It feels good to be out,” Konstantine remarked, speaking a little haltingly. “Having a purpose to move towards, to do.”
“Command is natural to you, milord,” Arion replied. “Suits you as well as that armour.”
“You may be right,” Konstantine said graciously, shifting his shoulders a little.
“Imagine if you take the city, how it would be when such news reached your father and uncle,” Arion continued. “Middanhal liberated from the usurper’s grasp!”
A smile spread across Konstantine’s face. “Not to mention our entry into the city.”
“Oh indeed,” Arion quickly assented. “People will fall at your feet and call you a hero.”
“You think they will?” Konstantine asked with curiosity in his voice.
“Definitely. Much preferred to Jarl Isarn, who would force them to bow before him and call him king.”
“That false pretender,” Konstantine snorted. “I would much rather have the people’s adorations freely than forced.”
“In that you show wisdom,” Arion declared. “Of course, a wiser person than Jarl Isarn might have found an even better path.”
Konstantine turned to look at his companion with a raised eyebrow. “Better?”
“If you can make people bow to you by their own volition and calling you hero, what would keep you from becoming king next?” Arion speculated. “That was the good jarl’s mistake,” the chamberlain continued. “He could only imagine using brute force to gain what he desired, threatening the noblemen into giving him a crown.”
“That was his only option though, was it not?” Konstantine argued. “The Adalthing would never willingly bow before someone like the jarl of Isarn. Only with a sword against their neck,” he laughed.
“True, true,” Arion nodded. “Very observant, milord. I suppose the wisest man would know how to be both feared and admired. If people do not bow for one reason, they will for the other.”
“I guess,” Konstantine frowned. “How do you do that?”
“In this case, purely speculating,” Arion said smoothly, “many would be grateful towards you and your uncle for freeing the city from Jarl Isarn. Grateful enough to gladly see your uncle take the seat that Jarl Isarn sought to usurp. For those who would protest,” Arion continued with a shrug, “Jarl Isarn’s plan to keep them in line would work just as well for any other jarl controlling the city.”
“You think so?” Konstantine asked, still frowning.
“As said, merely speculating, milord,” Arion smiled. “Something for your uncle to consider, perhaps, as the jarl.”
“I suppose,” Konstantine said, sounding uncertain.
“Though,” Arion continued, “as his heir, it is of course also your duty to always consider what is in his best interests.”
“True enough,” the young nobleman agreed with a pensive expression.
At the end of the second day on its march towards Middanhal, the Vale army made camp as usual. The largest tent in the centre naturally belonged to Konstantine. He was lying on what could be termed a cot, though far softer than what was usually afforded a commander; in his one hand was a bowl of strawberries, which his other hand was feeding him. By a table nearby sat Arion with ink and quill, scribbling on paper.
“Must you do that?” Konstantine complained as Arion slowly and cautiously scratched the quill against the paper.
“I am to send a report to your – uncle each day,” Arion reminded him, hesitating before phrasing himself.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Konstantine said irritated. “But must you do it in my presence?”
“It is custom that the commander reads the daily reports,” Arion pointed out.
“Who cares,” Konstantine said dismissively. “Write your reports if you must, but do so elsewhere.”
“Milord,” Arion bowed and began to gather his things, careful not to disturb the ink already placed on paper.
Before he could finish, one of the thanes entered. “Milord,” the warrior said while inclining his head towards Konstantine. “A scout returned with news you should hear.”
“What is it?” Konstantine asked eagerly, sitting up right. “Is it the enemy?”
“On the contrary,” the thane said hesitantly. “Enter,” he commanded someone outside the tent.
One of the scouts of the army entered and gave a bow. “We found something strange, milord. We were confused by not meeting any Isarn patrols,” he began to explain. “In the end, we ventured close to Middanhal itself seeking an explanation.”
“And?” Konstantine said impatiently.
“The banner flying over the gate has the Star upon it,” the scout said.
“Impossible,” Arion exclaimed.
“We made sure,” came the reply. “Their surcoats were Order coats as well.”
“What does this mean?” Konstantine asked.
“It may be a bit rude to continue with the siege now,” the thane remarked dryly.
“Leave us,” Arion said harshly, and the thane and scout left the tent.
“So that is it?” Konstantine wondered out loud; his face was trapped in an expression of uncertainty. “I was not told what to do in this situation.”
“None could expect it,” Arion declared. “Let us not be hasty, milord. Surely you are not in a hurry to be relieved of command.”
“No,” Konstantine mumbled, “but I am unsure what to do.”
“First we must verify what the scouts claim,” Arion told him. “It would not look well if you simply accepted such strange tidings and did nothing further.”
“Yes, of course,” Konstantine nodded eagerly. A moment passed before he spoke again. “How do I do that?” he asked.
“Send emissaries tomorrow. If the Order truly and by some wonder has retaken the city, they will welcome us. Open the city to us, I’m sure. You may march your troops in without a fight and fulfil your uncle’s command still,” Arion argued with a sly smile.
“Yes,” Konstantine nodded slowly. “Right. Take control of the city. If they open the gates for us, all the better.”
“You display a mind for stratagems, milord,” Arion smiled and bowed his head. “Now I will take my leave as intended before this intrusion and finish the letter to your uncle. Let him know that all is well in hand,” the chamberlain declared and left the tent with his writing tools.
The day after, envoys sent by Konstantine reached Middanhal. They were a small band; the man riding in front carried a blue banner with a white horse head upon it. The gates were closed, and the guards viewed the approaching riders with distrust and suspicion; archers stood ready to unleash their arrows upon command.
“Are we sure they are really Vale soldiers?” one of the soldiers asked the gate lieutenant. “They’re awfully far north considering rumour says their own lands are invaded. Could be Isarn men come to investigate.”
“It may be a ruse,” the lieutenant conceded before he nodded towards the banner with the horsehead. “But we must respect the banner of truce. If it turns out they have played it false, the gods will surely punish them for it.” He cleared his throat, raised his voice, and called out. “Who approaches?”
“I am sent by Lord Konstantine of the House of Vale, nephew and heir to the jarl of Vale,” the envoy declared. “He brings an army to the aid of Middanhal, seeking to see it free from the clutches of traitors.”
“He is too late, then,” the lieutenant answered. “The Order is quite capable of handling such matters. But given that all loyal noblemen are subject to the Order during times of war, I am sure my commanders will be interested to know of the forces that your master brings.”
“My lord came to wage war on the enemy,” the emissary explained, “not to submit himself to others.”
“Such is the nature of authority,” the lieutenant countered, “it does not rely on the willingness of those beneath it.”
“If my lord is to accept your authority,” the thane of Vale spoke, “he must know who wields it. Who among your numbers can claim higher standing than a jarl of the realm?”
“Theobald, captain of the Citadel is currently master of the city,” came the reply. “While not a marshal by office, we give him same respect in their absence. With the lord marshal abroad and the knight marshal dead, Captain Theobald is to be obeyed.”
“We had not heard of the knight marshal’s death,” the envoy said. “A tragedy, to be sure. However, it is not within my mandate to surrender any authority on behalf of my lord. Nor can such be done to any man less than your captain if he truly deserves the respect you claim.”
“Then bring your lord here to do so in person,” the lieutenant answered, “and I shall do likewise.”
The emissaries inclined their heads, turned their horses around and rode back west; the gate lieutenant’s response was to send one of his soldiers through the city to inform the captain of the Citadel that he was required at the Saltgate.
It took several hours for both parties to return with their leaders, but eventually Theobald and Fionn stood on the gatehouse, watching Konstantine approach with Arion and his thanes by his side under the banner of truce.
“This is his lordship Konstantine of the House of Vale,” Arion introduced his master with the loud voice necessary to cross the gap between the parties. “He has been given full powers by Jarl Valerian of Vale to speak on his behalf and lead his armies. He has come to seek negotiations with the lord of the city, whoever that might be.”
“I am not its lord,” Theobald replied in the same manner, “but I am responsible for its safety. You speak with Theobald, captain of the Citadel.”
“We are surprised to know the Order controls the city,” Arion spoke. “Last we heard, the jarl of Isarn ruled.”
“Obviously, much has happened since last you heard,” Theobald answered dryly.
“Apparently,” Arion muttered so only Konstantine could hear. “In that case, captain,” the chamberlain continued, raising his voice, “you will have no qualms opening your gates and letting our soldiers inside to man your walls. That way, they may safeguard the city.”
Theobald glanced beyond the small delegation. The vanguard of the Vale army was present, several hundred men; the rest of their army was hidden from sight, however. “How many men do you think they have?” Theobald asked Fionn by his side.
“If they came here intending to start a siege, and if I know anything about the jarl of Vale,” Fionn said gruffly, “they will be several thousand. Probably outnumber us four or five to one until Sir Richard returns.”
“We are both thinking the same, I take it,” Theobald remarked. “We let them in, we give them the chance to do exactly what Isarn wanted to do.” Clearing his throat, he spoke loudly again. “Since this realm is at war, the Order hereby exercises its right to conscript your soldiers and assume command. Your army will remain outside the city until such time that new commanders appointed by the Order may arrive and take up leadership.”
“We will do no such thing!” Konstantine exclaimed outraged. “This army marches under the banners of Vale and none others!”
“Failure to obey is considered an act of treason,” Theobald said coldly with narrowed eyes. “Think carefully before you proceed.”
“They bluff,” Arion stated quietly to Konstantine. “All Order forces in Adalrik were either sent east to Hæthiod or destroyed at Lake Myr. I do not know how Jarl Isarn managed to lose control of Middanhal to the Citadel garrison, but they cannot have more than a few hundred in the city.”
“You are certain?” Konstantine asked anxiously.
“Absolutely,” Arion nodded. “Furthermore, this man is not a marshal. He has no right to make such demands.”
“I repeat,” Theobald called out as the Vale delegation did not reply, “make camp and await further orders. You will relinquish command of your forces to the Order.”
“I do not know,” Konstantine admitted, his eyes staring at the closed gate in front of him.
“It is your decision, milord,” Arion said calmly. “Of course, if you do obey, you need not worry further. With the Order assuming command of your troops, you will not have to make any further decisions.”
“No,” Konstantine said. “No, not that,” he repeated before raising his voice. “The House of Vale does not bow so easily. You will open your gates and surrender your forces to our control,” the youth demanded, “and we will defend the city from the enemy.”
“The boy is not too bright, is he,” Fionn frowned. “He is committing high treason.”
“If his uncle makes himself king like Jarl Isarn wanted to do, who will punish him for his mistake?” Theobald growled. “This is not a negotiation,” the captain yelled. “We do not seek nor offer terms. You will submit to the Order or be held accountable.”
“I return to my army, but not to submit,” Konstantine warned. “You have until our siege engines are prepared to change your minds and surrender the city. After that, I promise no mercy.”
“I will gladly make you a promise, however,” Theobald retorted. “If you shed one drop of blood from any of my soldiers, you will find the executioner’s axe against your neck.”
With this final exchange, the delegation turned their horses around and withdrew. “I did not make a mistake, did I?” Konstantine asked in a weak voice.
“Do not doubt yourself now,” Arion reproached him. “You have made your decision. Stand by it.”
Inside the walls, the captain and Fionn descended from the gatehouse. Now that it was less urgent, their speed was slow, adjusting for the captain’s limp. “I wonder if this could have gone differently,” Theobald pondered.
Fionn shook his head. “We could not allow them to enter the city. Just as with Sir Roderic, your hands were tied.”
“I hope the lord marshal agrees when he returns,” the captain muttered. “Sooner rather than later would be preferable. Our situation is far too precarious, especially if Jarl Vale now takes matters into his own hands.”
“We have enough soldiers to man the walls,” Fionn said reassuringly. “It will take them days to assemble their siege machinery, and even then, they will find our fortifications formidable. Let them come!” the knight declared. “My sword is sharp enough for both the jarls of Isarn and Vale.”
“Is that so,” Theobald said gruffly, though the corner of his mouth wrinkled upwards. “You do not think it might grow dull just a little as you slaughter your way through the armies of both the North and the South?”
“In that case, I have a whetstone,” Fionn remarked with laughter.
The Vale army wasted no time. That same day, they began constructing a siege camp near Middanhal, raising stockades to fully enclose the southern side of the city and keep the defenders hemmed in. Large quantities of timber had been sailed to Coldharbour and brought with the army on wagons for this purpose. The engineers took what remained and began construction of siege weapons, catapults to harass the defenders and siege towers to scale the walls. The Order soldiers watched all these preparations keenly as they made their own. The supplies of arrows in every tower were replenished along with something as simple as large, hewn stones to be thrown as blunt missiles. The Temple was alerted that the norns and lay brothers should expect wounded from the southern walls while bandages and poultices in great numbers were prepared in advance.
In this manner, the days continued with both sides making ready; as a final act, Theobald ordered the banner of the Star raised on every tower that had not yet seen this done since the retaking of the city. By the end of the third day, the black banner with the white, seven-pointed star was flown from every pole on the walls as it had done before the uprising. Beyond the walls, the Vale soldiers completed their last tasks in preparation of the following day when their storm upon the severely outnumbered defenders could begin.