The Weapons of War
Early the next day, Brand led a company of knights and attendants out of camp, a hundred men in all. They rode at a steady pace, raising heads and questions as to their purpose, though no answers were to be had. A few speculated on a possible connection with the new prisoner kept isolated in a tent, but since the soldiers were not allowed to speak with prisoners as a general rule, no information could be found there either.
“What do you say to tell a woman she’s beautiful?” asked Nicholas. He was inside the tent he shared with most of the lieutenant’s men, as they were known.
“You just used the words,” Quentin growled. “Unless she is deaf, she’ll get your meaning. If she is deaf, other words won’t help you much.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Nicholas muttered, looking at Troy.
“You use a picture,” the bard told him. “One made out words. You paint that picture in her inner eye and compare her to it, and she’ll see what you mean.”
“I don’t follow,” the archer frowned.
“Think of something that’s beautiful, like a flower,” Troy explained. “You tell her she is fairer than a field of flowers, and all the blossoms she has ever seen will come into mind, and she’ll know what you mean.”
“That’s real clever,” Nicholas nodded thoughtfully. “You’re crafty.” The compliment was accepted with a nod and a smile.
“It’s a shame you don’t know Song of Sigvard,” Egil said. “I would like to hear it on solstice.”
“Alas, my audience tends to be found in taverns rather than great halls. A ballad I can handle,” Troy spoke regretfully. “Less so the high songs.”
“Isn’t there a song about Erhard?” asked the young scribe.
“Yes. On the Field of Blue, it’s called,” Quentin replied, checking his bowstrings for any frayed threads.
“Do you know it?” Egil asked Troy with shining eyes.
“I think I learned it once,” the bard mumbled. “Maybe tonight. I’ll need to remind myself how it is played…” his voice trailed off. Meanwhile, Egil had gathered some of his writing tools, and as the other men busied themselves, he left the tent.
The young apprentice shivered in the cold and pulled his hands as much inside the sleeves of his robe as he could without dropping quill, ink, and parchment. Walking at a brisk pace, he traversed the camp until he reached the tent that had been drafted into service as a primitive prison.
“What you want?” asked the soldier standing guard brusquely.
“The lieutenant told me to ask some questions to the prisoner and write them down,” Egil replied, holding up the utensils in his hands.
“Lieutenant told you?” the guard questioned, scratching his beard. Egil gave a nod. “Get to it then.”
Egil nodded again and walked past, entering the tent. Inside, he found a large, wooden pole hammered into the ground. Around it was a metal ring, and sitting on the ground, chained to that ring, was Godfrey. “I wondered if you recognised me,” the prisoner smiled.
“Hard to forget,” Egil muttered. “Thanks to you, I was attacked by murderers and brigands, and I met – I met Elves,” he whispered almost feverishly.
Godfrey leaned back a little. “He told you? I did not expect that.”
“He had to,” the young scribe explained. “I had to hide in the Alfskog to avoid being killed by muggers.” Egil paused for a moment. “How do you know an Elf? Why is Ælfwine helping you? What’s all this about?”
“I have no answers for you,” Godfrey told him. “But since you are here, I have questions of my own.”
“I’ll answer yours if you answer mine,” Egil replied with a cunning look.
“No.” At Godfrey’s reply, disappointment replaced cunningness. “When Quill made you his apprentice, he bound you to his service. That includes serving me. I believe that has been made obvious.”
“Fine,” Egil pouted.
“First, why are you here?”
“Sir Adalbrand asked Master Quill to let me join him. He wanted to have this campaign recorded by a reliable witness.”
“The lieutenant is Quill’s friend,” Godfrey commented with dawning realisation on his face. “I thought he looked familiar.”
“You know him?”
“I have seen him before, that is all. Who is the captain?”
“Is he a good commander? How would you judge him?”
“They say he is unbeatable in combat,” Egil explained. “He seems honourable and trustworthy. So say all the men.”
“He will need more than that as long as the outlanders have five times his numbers,” Godfrey remarked dryly. “Is he a capable commander in the field?”
Egil hesitated. “I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about such things. I don’t know anything about you.”
“You know two of my friends,” Godfrey told him. “Quill and the Highfather. Judge me by my company. Would you doubt either of them?”
“I suppose not,” Egil admitted reluctantly.
“I walk in shadows, boy. Secrets keep me safe. But if you trust me, Egil, I will return the favour. You are in a camp of war, and you might soon find yourself in danger again. Think of whom I summoned last to protect you on your journey to the highlands. Trust me, and I will protect you in the future,” Godfrey promised in a soothing voice.
“As you say,” Egil acquiesced.
“Now. Sir William, how is he as a captain?”
“He is suitable, I suppose, though Sir Adalbrand is the true leader. When winter is over and battle can be expected, it’ll be him commanding the army,” Egil explained.
“Strange. He is the lieutenant and many years younger, is he not? He seems barely old enough to be a knight.”
“He is very young,” Egil admitted, “but he has proven himself. He defeated the Isarn rebels on the field twice, even against Sir Athelstan.”
“That was him?” Godfrey raised his eyebrows. “I have heard stories of what happened in Adalrik, but few details.”
“He crossed the Weolcans with an army,” Egil elaborated. “He took Middanhal from the rebels by surprise and defeated both Jarl Isarn and his brother.”
“Maybe the outlanders need to outnumber him by more than five times,” Godfrey jested.
“Not all are fond of him, though,” Egil confided, lowering his voice. “They say Jarl Ingmond hates him, and because of that, we cannot have winter quarters in Ingmond but have to stay in this camp instead.”
“How do the soldiers feel about him?”
“The knights are spiteful towards him, I think,” Egil considered. “They don’t like being under his command. Half the footmen, especially those who are new, seem to dread or dislike him intensely.”
“For what reason?”
“He likes to make inspections, especially at night. Anyone being lax in his duties or on post gets flogged. And as mentioned, they aren't happy that we are quartered in camp instead of a city in Ingmond.”
“Half the men feel this way? What of the rest?”
“They worship him,” Egil said after a moment. “Especially those that fought with him the longest in Adalrik. They’d assault the gates of Hel if he told them to.”
Godfrey’s eyes examined Egil. “What do you think of him, this Adalbrand?”
The boy frowned before he gave his answer. “I feel uneasy knowing someone has such power over the hearts of men. Who knows what he will use it for?”
“Indeed,” Godfrey assented, leaning back and closing his eyes. “How did they react to the news I brought them?” he asked, looking at Egil again.
“Sir Adalbrand rode out this morning with a force of knights.” Egil hesitated a little. “What will happen now? What do you plan to do?”
“Wait here for his return,” Godfrey smiled, rattling his chain.
The Order army had not only chosen its camp from availability of fresh water and defensive features; if one were to trace a direct line between Lakon and Tothmor, the camp was not far from such an imaginary line. The outlanders were aware of the Order presence to some degree since their outriders clashed with their Mearcian counterparts from time to time. Even if they did not know the precise location, caution made their convoys and contingents march in a wide semicircle bent eastwards, keeping distance to the Order army. Usually, this coupled with their blackboots restricting the range and movements of the Order scouts kept their supply trains hidden from detection.
When the scouts already knew such a train was on the move, however, discovery was only a matter of time. Riding swiftly, they soon found revealing tracks and could return with certain knowledge to Brand, waiting in the empty wasteland with his knights and their squires and sergeants; of his personal retinue, he had brought Geberic and Matthew. As soon as information reached the restless Order warriors, they acted upon it. A force of a hundred riders could not be concealed long in the empty land of western Hæthiod, and the garrisons from either Lakon or Tothmor were sure to react eventually.
Like a snake coiled through the landscape, the supply train moved through the heath. The terrain was a little rough, but generally flat, allowing their wagons to move. There were about ten of them in total, and each had several soldiers sitting on it or surrounding it; all in all, each wagon had an escort of about ten warriors.
Out in the open, the Anausa soldiers were vigilant and tense; they spotted Brand’s company as soon as it was within range.
“Half charge,” Brand commanded. “Squires and sergeants, ride down stragglers. Geberic, with me.” The order was spread down the line. Leaving their attendants behind, the knights alone moved their horses to stand side by side and began a slow trot. Ahead, the outlanders were desperately gathering, trying to form lines with their spears. In a display of discipline and horsemanship, the knights spurred their horses to a gallop to close the distance, every man keeping perfect pace.
With a deafening sound, the longer spears of the Mearcian knights struck into shields, cloth, mail, leather, and flesh. Nearly half the outlanders died where they stood, not even inflicting a scratch in return. Chaos erupted as both lines disintegrated; most knights had released their spears as soon as they struck target and drawn swords instead, or they were using the hooves of their war steeds to trample their enemy.
The outlanders’ shorter spears had served them ill in the first clash, but now they struck back, aiming for the knights’ horses. A few fell, but the knights had the upper hand in every way, and they cut the outlanders down like wheat before the scythe. Some attempted to use the wagons to buy themselves reprieve, but it was short-lived; within moments, the Mearcians outnumbered the Anausa and surrounded those still fighting. About a score of the red-robed warriors dropped their weapons and bolted; some ran north towards Tothmor, some south towards Lakon. The squires and sergeants caught up with all of them, leaving not a single enemy to survive.
In practical terms, the skirmish was over shortly after it began. Some of the wounded outlanders tried to continue fighting and were promptly dealt a deathblow. The remainder, too wounded to move or too smart to draw attention, were left alone; it was against the Knight’s Codex to kill an enemy who could not defend himself, and if any were taken prisoner, they were to be shown care and courtesy. Since it was not feasible to drag any of the outlanders from this fight back to camp as prisoners, the knights simply ignored them and thereby avoided any responsibility for them.
Instead, the Mearcians turned their attention towards the wagons. Some of them contained cloth, such as uniforms, tents, clothing, and the like. One wagon had barrels of arrows, a few had food supplies, and three contained large barrels of water.
“Sir Ewind,” Brand shouted, and one of the knights approached with a grin. “I will have Geberic deal with the water barrels. See to it that the rest of the supplies are destroyed as best we can.”
“Consider it done,” the knight saluted with a fist to his chest and turned around to bark some orders.
The lieutenant meanwhile turned towards Geberic. “Only half of them,” Brand instructed him quietly.
“Understood, milord,” Geberic smiled, pulling a hatchet out of his saddlebag. He began striking the water barrels with the axe, breaking the wood to let the contents pour out. However, whereas half of them received vigorous strikes to leave them all but destroyed, Geberic only inflicted minor damage on the other half. A little of the water spilled, but most remained.
Pulling a bag from his own saddle and opening it, Brand’s expression became displeased as the smell of rotting flesh rose into the air. Working quietly, Brand distributed the pieces of spoiled meat to each of the water barrels still intact, throwing the bag away when done.
“Let us away,” Brand told his companion. At the other end of the wagon train, the knights had set fire to supplies and carts with rising smoke that was sure to attract attention. The squires and sergeants who had pursued the fleeing outlanders were returning by now.
“Into the saddle,” Geberic yelled to the knights. “We’re back to camp!” Moments after, the knights and attendants were riding west, leaving only gruesome remains for the outlanders to find.
With firewood being scarce, the fires around the Order camp were of pitiful size, and the soldiers typically sat huddled close around them. This evening was an exception; Since Geberic and Matthew had gone with Brand, the remaining of the lieutenant’s men had more space than usual. Troy was strumming his lute as always, while others were preparing food.
“Just one more time,” Nicholas pleaded. He shook a letter in his hand at Egil.
“You know how to read,” the young scribe protested. “Besides, I read it for you twice the other day.”
“It takes me too long,” Nicholas complained. “I hack through the words. When you read, it’s like watching an arrow take flight through the air, graceful and unstoppable.”
“Watch out, Troy, you have competition,” Quentin laughed coarsely.
“He’ll need to refine his verse before I feel threatened,” Troy grinned.
“Egil, please,” Nicholas reiterated his prayer, shaking the letter once more.
“Fine,” Egil grumbled and snatched the paper. Squinting his eyes and turning so that the light of the fire could illuminate the words, he began reading. “Dearest Nicholas,” his voice rung out clear. “I was happy to receive your latest letter. I am glad if nothing of note is happening in camp. If I had my wish, you would spend the whole campaign in camp and then return to Middanhal without a scratch on you.”
“Typical women,” Quentin scoffed, though he had ceased stirring the pot boiling over the fire, listening to Egil reading instead. Nicholas did not seem to notice Quentin’s remark; his face showed his rapture at every word spoken by the scribe.
“There is not much to tell here either. The city seems calm after all the awful events earlier this year, and I hope it continues that way. I have prayed to Idisea for a peaceful winter solstice, just as I pray to Rihimil for your safety. Pa has promised to slaughter the sow, so we will have solstice ham with honey.”
“Ham,” Troy whined with the expression of a starving dog.
“You’re getting soup, and you’ll be thankful for it,” Quentin scowled at the bard.
“Old Hilda’s cough has worsened. I am worried the raven will find her come the Raven Days. I make her some tea to help every chance I get, but yesterday I found it cold in the cup. She had forgotten to drink it. I told Pa we should leave something at Idisea’s shrine to spare Hilda another winter, but he said we had enough worries of our own to spend silver on an old neighbour whose time had come. I told him that yes, Hilda is our old neighbour and has been our neighbour since I was born, and she was always kind to me.”
“Every time you read that letter, I wonder if Hilda is clad in raven feathers yet,” Quentin said coarsely. Nicholas made a shushing sound, still staring into the fire.
“That did not convince Pa, though, so I spent my own coin. I know you would approve. You are so kind yourself. Write back when you can. Yours faithfully, Ellen.”
Nicholas blinked a few times, turning to look at Egil. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Egil told him, handing the letter back.
“Maybe tomorrow you would write a reply for me?” the Hæthian asked slyly.
“Yesterday Troy, tomorrow you,” Egil complained. “You realise that you would have to pay good silver to a scribe if we were in town for this service?”
“We’re in camp, though,” Nicholas pointed out, making his companions laugh.
“Don’t be so stingy,” Quentin admonished Egil. “We let you share in our food, so you don’t have to cook any yourself.”
“Fine,” Egil grumbled.
“Food!” came Matthew’s voice as he found a place to sit by the fire.
“You’re back,” Troy pointed out. “How did it go?”
“It went well,” Matthew replied. “When’s the food ready?”
“In a little while,” Quentin told him brusquely. “Where’s your master?”
“He had to talk with the captain,” the young sergeant explained.
“Isn’t it your duty to be by his side at all times?” Quentin questioned him, beginning to pour soup for the others.
“He told me I wasn’t needed,” Matthew mumbled defensively.
“Let the boy have some rest,” Nicholas interceded on his behalf. “Weren’t you going to play something new, Troy?”
“I was, but I only remember the tune, not the words,” the bard admitted.
“Play it anyway,” Quentin told him, finishing his duty as a cook.
“Yes, play it,” said Matthew.
Troy nodded with a gracious smile and began plucking the strings of his instrument. The melody came in waves, washing over them, and to everyone’s surprise, a voice soon accompanied the tune.
“Sing to us, songs of old, valour’s flame burning bright,” Quentin sung with a deep voice as the others stared with varying expressions. “Sing on the Field of Blue, night so dark turned to light.” Soon the others were clapping along, their hands and laughter performing as the final instruments alongside Quentin’s voice and Troy’s lute.
While his men tended to their stomachs, Brand had gone to William’s tent. Leaving Geberic outside, he gained admittance with ease, as the guards outside would not hinder the lieutenant of the army.
“What happened?” asked William, closing the book he had been reading. “What did you find?”
Brand cast a look at Baldwin. “I need to speak with you privately.”
William gave a frown but nodded at his squire, who left the tent. “What is amiss?”
“The report given to us by the traveller was accurate,” Brand informed him, sitting down. “We found the supply train and dealt with it.”
“What was it carrying?”
“Provisions, arms, lots of water. They are getting thirsty in Tothmor.”
“It will rain sooner or later,” William contemplated. “Lack of water will not trouble them indefinitely.”
“I agree,” Brand said, his voice growing hesitant, “which is why we should act soon. Prepare the men for a surprise assault on Tothmor.”
William sat up straight, frowning. “Against a garrison twice our size?”
“I only destroyed about half the water that the train was bringing to Tothmor. The outlanders will have recovered the rest by now. It should reach the city tomorrow,” Brand explained.
“Why did you leave any of the water intact?”
“Because once the outlanders drink it, they will get sick. Their garrison will be depleted of men able to fight, and we can take the city by storm,” Brand told his captain, speaking slowly.
It took a moment before William’s frown turned to a scowl. “What did you do?”
“What was necessary.”
“You poisoned the water.” William’s voice trembled slightly.
“Giving us an opportunity to retake the city with minimal losses,” Brand argued.
“We are knights!” William almost bellowed, rising up quickly to pace around the tent. “We follow the Codex! We fight with honour!”
Brand leaned back in his seat. “No prisoners have been mistreated, no enemies have been denied quarter. We will take the city in battle.”
“By dishonourable means,” William fumed.
“If a traitor opened the gates for us, would you disagree with taking advantage of such an opportunity?” Brand asked. “When Sir Richard and I assaulted Middanhal at night, we took the city through stealth and surprise, and it helped to bring our war to a swift conclusion.”
“This is different!” William exclaimed, constantly moving about inside the small space of the tent. “Killing through poison is a woman’s weapon, unworthy of a knight.”
“I doubt many, if any, will die,” Brand retorted, remaining calmly seated. “They will be weak, unable to fight.”
“What of our own citizens in Tothmor?” William countered. “Your ploy may spread disease among them. Even if by some miracle this does not claim any of their lives, you have tainted the water supply. People in Tothmor will face death by thirst even if we liberate the city.”
“How many would die from thirst or starvation if we besieged the city?” Brand replied, his voice growing harsh. “We have already been denying the outlanders all the supplies we could intercept. How is it noble to make the city suffer through siege and skirmish, yet villainous to do so in the manner I have done, which will allow us to free the city in days rather than months?”
William was silent for a moment, ceasing his pacing. “We fight our enemies with sword in hand, giving them a chance to defend themselves. To surrender if need be. As they give us the same terms. What will war become if we dare not trust the water we drink? How soon will we slaughter enemies and innocents alike?”
“War has already become this,” Brand argued. “Both sides use spies. We have guards outside our tents to protect against hidden killers in the night.”
“It can be much worse,” the captain muttered darkly. “I was your age when I fought in the highlands. I witnessed what soldiers of the Order did, fighting an enemy with gruesome tactics, justified by that enemy’s own methods.” He turned to stare at Brand. “Your own father died seeking to stop this. I never thought I would find his son defending such tactics.”
“What I have done,” Brand spoke with a grim voice, “will hurt a few, but save hundreds of our soldiers and remove the yoke of the outlanders from Tothmor. Is that not a bargain worth making?”
“I do not know.” William sank into his seat. “The price we pay for this could be much higher than what you estimate.”
Brand licked his lips. “Were you present? When my father died.”
“I was not. It happened in camp while I was scouting the terrain with Sir Athelstan.”
“He does not deserve that title anymore,” Brand declared harshly.
“You are quick to cast judgement given your own actions,” William swiftly retorted.
“I have done nothing against the Knight’s Codex,” the lieutenant claimed. “Even if you disagree, this act is upon me, not you. You have been presented with an opportunity to deal a devastating blow to our enemy. As captain, what is your duty?”
William exhaled slowly. “I will free my city. Whatever sin we commit, let it be my burden to bear.”
“Good,” Brand declared, standing up. “We should spend tomorrow making preparations and march out the day after. I will see to the arrangements.”
“I am sure you will,” William muttered. “Another matter. The traveller proved good to his word. There is no need to keep him imprisoned.”
“Just to be cautious, I recommend we keep him under guard until we have departed for Tothmor,” Brand advised. “If this was all a ploy to gain our trust, we do not want him warning the outlanders. Once we have marched out, however, he may be set free.”
“Very well,” William assented absent-mindedly.
“Captain.” Brand nodded in farewell, striding out of the tent. He gave a brief nod to Baldwin as well, who had been waiting outside.
Walking away, the lieutenant was joined by Geberic as they moved towards their own part of camp. “Did it work?”
“We march out the day after tomorrow,” the knight told his attendant. “We have a lot of preparations ahead of us. Before I forget,” Brand added, “the traveller who brought us news of the supply train.”
“What about him, milord?”
“Arrange for him to be released after we have marched out, but he is under orders to remain in camp. Make sure he is watched. If he attempts to leave camp, it can only be to warn the outlanders, in which case he is to be killed immediately.”
“Very well, milord.”