The day after the skirmish saw the Order camp transformed from drowsy winter quartering to frantic battle preparing. Some tasks were almost superfluous; armour and arms were already polished, oiled and in good condition, as tending to such tasks had been one of the only ways to keep busy while wintering. Other matters were undertaken with hectic manoeuvres. The camp’s meagre supply of timber for palisades was being emptied to make storm ladders of equal height to the walls of Tothmor. There was no time to add the iron top piece, which let the ladders hook onto the battlements without being pushed away by the defenders. Brand had declared this unnecessary, despite the protestations of the engineer, who felt that the correct construction of siege ladders was a matter of professional pride. Like most of his craft, he was a riverman, having studied at the guild in Fontaine, and he was the only engineer that the Order had been given at its disposal for this campaign.
The siege equipment was the most critical part of the preparations being made, but that only occupied a small part of the camp, as there was only one engineer to supervise the work. Elsewhere, most soldiers were busy loading supplies onto wagons, checking harnesses and the condition of the draught animals, or making sure that tents were ready to be packed away in the morning. Nearly the entire army would depart, leaving only about a hundred men behind to watch the camp under Sir Ewind’s leadership.
“Once the outlanders realise what we have done, I assume they will only care about Tothmor and not our camp here,” Brand told the knight. “However, should they dispatch forces to seize it, use your best judgement whether to fight or retreat. Once we have the city, this camp is not worth losing every soldier under your command to defend.”
“Understood,” replied Ewind. “It irks me to be left behind, though, lieutenant.”
“I leave you behind because I trust you the most,” Brand explained.
“I know, I know,” Ewind reiterated, waving his hand in dismissal. “The measure of knight is not that he obeys his will, but his commander,” he quoted from the Codex.
“Glory is found in fealty, not on the field,” Brand added with a smile and walked away, yelling orders to the soldiers along his path.
“You are staying behind to guard the tents?” The question was spoken in a superior tone of voice, coming from lips curled in a smug smile.
“I have that honour, yes,” Ewind replied stiffly.
The other person approached, his golden spurs signalling him a knight. “You are generous to call it an honour. Every other knight is to assault the city, fighting the enemies of the Order,” came the scornful response, “while you remain safe, protecting horse droppings.”
“There is honour in service, Sir Vilmund. Are you in need of being reminded?” Ewind turned to face the other knight, resting his left hand casually on the pommel of his sheathed sword.
“Hardly,” Vilmund scoffed. “I admire your ability to accept serving the whims of a boy, though.”
“He is our lieutenant and thus our commander,” the drakonian knight pointed out, clenching his jaw.
“Sir William is our commander,” the islander corrected his peer. “As chosen by Sir Reynold. Not this brat!”
“Sir Reynold is dead because he underestimated our enemy. You should not make the same mistake with Sir Adalbrand,” Ewind warned the other.
“Keep barking, lapdog,” Vilmund laughed, walking away.
It was not even dawn when the Order army prepared to march out. The soldiers took a hearty breakfast as they were expected to march a long distance for many hours with few breaks, and many tents were swiftly disassembled and added to the others on the carts.
Weaving around the soldiers attending to the various tasks, Egil made his way to the tent where Godfrey was chained up. This time, the guard did not question him but simply waved the boy inside.
“What news?” asked Godfrey in a hushed voice as soon as Egil was inside.
“We are marching soon,” the boy replied. “Towards Tothmor, the men say.”
“Tothmor?” Godfrey exclaimed. “How can that be?”
“I don’t really know,” Egil admitted with an ignorant shrug. “That’s what they told me.”
There was a rattling of chains as Godfrey scratched his cheek. His eyes were vacant for a moment. “Is my sword still in the captain’s tent?” he asked suddenly, turning his gaze on Egil.
“I think so. No reason any would move it.”
Godfrey pulled his shackles a bit, making the iron links stretch out. “Do they intend to keep me here?”
“I asked,” Egil told him. “You will be freed later today, once we’re gone.”
The prisoner nodded. “That should give me time,” he muttered, looking at his chains.
“Time for what?”
Godfrey gave a vague smile without looking up. “Nothing you need worry about.”
Egil let out a frustrated sigh. “I feel like a pawn.”
Hearing this, Godfrey raised his eyes to stare at the boy. “We are all pieces on a chessboard. You may think there is a great difference between a king and a pawn, but in the end, we are all trapped on the same board.” Smoothing the thin beard on his chin, he continued. “We think we are free in our choices, but in truth, our every move is dictated by our circumstances. A pawn has but one direction to travel. A knight has many, but still he moves as dictated by the Codex. A jarl may move backwards, forwards, or to either side, but even he cannot escape the board. Once the game ends, once pawn and king are removed from the board, we know them for what they are.”
“What are they?” asked Egil breathlessly.
“Pieces of the same dead wood.”
“What are you saying?”
“You may be a pawn, Egil, and your choices may be limited.” Godfrey gave a smile. “But at least you are playing, and you know who your allies are among the other pieces. That is more certainty than many others are given.”
Egil stood silent for a moment. “Still, I wish I was a king rather than a pawn.”
This evoked laughter from his companion. “I cannot begrudge you that.”
“What piece are you?” The question came with sudden sharpness.
Godfrey’s laughter turned to smile again. “I am not in the habit of answering such questions, but you are free to speculate.”
Egil frowned. “When we first met in Middanhal, I would have taken you for a thane, moving across the board to protect others. I don’t think so anymore.”
“Now I am wondering if you maybe you are the dragonlord, moving in every direction as you please, much stronger than you look.”
Godfrey’s smile widened. “Maybe there is hope for you yet.”
The weak winter sun was still early in its ascendance when the Order army rode out of camp. A strong company of knights had already set out to act as vanguard and intercept any outlander scouts ahead. Most of the remaining knights and their attendants rode in front of the column as it snaked out of the palisade gate with William and Brand at the front. Row after row of footmen marched behind, ten men side by side; their shields were strapped to their backs atop their woollen cloaks, and spears served as walking staves. A score of carts came near the end with another hundred infantry bringing up the rear along with twenty-five knights.
“Two thousand men to take Tothmor,” William muttered under his breath.
“It was enough to take Middanhal,” Brand reminded him with a confident smile.
Behind them rode a squire, a sergeant, and a scribe. The first controlled his mount with grace, the second was able to remain in the saddle, and the third gave doubts as to whether he or the horse was in charge.
“Is it much longer?” asked Egil with an unpleasant expression upon his face.
“It’s several days,” Baldwin informed him, patting the neck of his war steed; the animal was more costly than Matthew’s or Egil’s horses put together.
“Hammer and quill take me,” Egil mumbled.
“What does that even mean?” asked Matthew with condescending frown. “Is that something feather boys say?”
“It’s something highlanders say,” Egil corrected him defensively. “You’d know that if your head wasn’t so empty.”
“It’s not,” the other boy protested.
“Then why do I always beat you when we play chess?” Egil pointed out triumphantly.
“What is its meaning?” Baldwin asked, interrupting their quarrel.
“What? Oh,” said the apprenticed scribe. “It refers to Hamaring. Improve your skills with both hammer and quill, the whiterobes always say.”
“Strengthen your body and sharpen your mind,” the squire nodded.
“Nobody does that,” Matthew argued. “I train with weapons because I am a warrior. Feather boy here trains with parchment and ink,” he added, nodding towards Egil.
“A knight does,” Baldwin countered. “We practise both riding and fighting, but also numbers and letters, history and knowledge of the land.”
“Glad I am not going to be one,” Matthew replied, sounding comfortably lazy.
“So is the Order,” Egil mumbled, eliciting a smile from Baldwin.
“We all serve in different ways,” the squire declared with a tranquil voice.
The camp seemed all but deserted once the army had left. A handful of soldiers stood guard by the gate or dispersed along the stockade. A few craftsmen had remained in camp and were at work; the sounds of a hammer striking an anvil could be heard ringing. Elsewhere, the stench of leather being tanned made its presence known.
A soldier entered the tent where Godfrey was chained up, wielding a key. Barely glancing at the prisoner, he grabbed the shackles and unlocked them. “You’re allowed outside,” he spoke gruffly.
“What about my sword?” asked Godfrey.
“I couldn’t say. Not my problem,” the soldier replied dismissively. “Lieutenant said you can walk around camp, but you’re not allowed to leave until told otherwise. Understood?”
The footman left without another word while the now freed Godfrey got to his feet. Walking outside, he blinked a few times against the sunlight, narrowing his eyes as he glanced around. Having gotten his bearings, he began to walk idly in one direction. From a distance, hidden between some of the remaining tents, a pair of eyes kept watch.
While there was still daylight, Godfrey seemed content with merely wandering around, making occasional conversation or procuring something to eat. He stopped by the carpenter, admiring his craftsmanship as the latter sawed and hewed planks for various purposes; when the foraging party returned with fresh water from the nearby stream, a few jests and gracious words allowed Godfrey to drink his fill from one of the barrels. All through these encounters, a soldier was twenty to thirty paces behind Godfrey, never losing him of sight.
The former prisoner spent the last hours of the day in conversation with some of the soldiers seated around a campfire, trading stories. Godfrey’s shadow had remained patiently in hiding behind a tent, gnawing on some dried meat on occasion. He only stirred when he saw Godfrey rise and make some form of farewell, though the words were inaudible to him.
The observer nimbly and quietly moved closer; the darkness made it harder to see Godfrey. In fact, none noticed as the wanderer put his hand inside a pocket and withdrew a handful of soaked sawdust; as Godfrey threw it on the fire, however, it caught everyone’s attention. The flames sputtered, ejecting sparks in every direction and causing a burst of smoke. The soldier sent to watch Godfrey shielded his eyes, looking away. It was only a moment before he returned his gaze to the same spot, but too late. Panic appearing on his face, he hurried forward with eyes darting in every direction, but to no avail; Godfrey was gone.
It was late the following day when a weary traveller approached a small rock formation many miles south-west of Tothmor. He was still some distance away when a voice cried out, “Javed!” A shadow appeared to spring from the stone and stepped into the sunlight to reveal itself as a black-clad warrior, specifically an outlander of their blackboot company.
“Good,” Godfrey exclaimed. “I was worried none might be here.”
“We have kept a sharp watch,” replied Kamran. “You seem worn.”
“I have walked all night and day.”
“Trouble?” asked the blackboot with a concerned look, handing Godfrey a water skin to drink from.
“I will explain as we walk,” his companion replied after some heavy sips. He began to walk north-east, Kamran joining him. “The drylanders are marching towards Tothmor.”
“How so?” it burst from Kamran. “They cannot have received great reinforcements in the dead of winter, can they?”
“No,” Godfrey shook his head. “Something has given them courage to assault Tothmor. Has there been any great change in the city?”
“None,” replied the blackboot. “There is some fatigue among the men as to be expected when water is being rationed so harshly. But our grip on the city remains strong.”
Godfrey took a few more sips from the water skin without slowing his pace. “Perhaps they hope the lack of water has grown so desperate, they can besiege the city in a few weeks, but that seems a foolhardy endeavour.”
“Winter rains will be on us soon,” Kamran added, looking up at the cloudless sky. “With the latest provisions from Lakon, we will have enough until then.”
“What provisions?” Godfrey asked, coming to an abrupt halt as he turned to look at his companion.
“A supply train arrived from Lakon shortly before I left the city,” Kamran explained. “It had been attacked, but the drylanders were careless. Almost half the water survived.”
“How odd,” Godfrey mumbled, resuming movement. “Destroying the water barrels would be the highest priority, you would think. Are you certain of this?”
“Completely,” the outlander replied. “I was going to fill my skin from the barrels, except they would not let me. I watched them take it to the reservoir instead.”
“Strange,” Godfrey uttered, scratching the stubbles on his cheek. “First the drylanders allow this water to reach the city, and now they march with haste – of course,” he suddenly spoke, interrupting himself. “It is obvious. How do you kill an enemy that you are not strong enough to fight?”
A frown crossed Kamran’s face. “You stab him in the back. Or poison him.”
“When you return, you will find more than fatigue plaguing the garrison,” Godfrey declared. “They poisoned the water and let your soldiers bring it back.”
“What do we do? Should we warn the commander?” Kamran asked concerned.
“I cannot predict the consequences of this, one way or the other,” Godfrey admitted. His face spoke of deep weariness, but he increased his pace. “I think we must let this play out. Allow the drylanders to seize the city if they can.”
“We do nothing?”
“You will get me into the city,” Godfrey commanded. He squinted his eyes at Mount Tothmor as it loomed against the horizon. “Afterwards, gather your brethren and go on patrol. Whatever happens to the city, be far away when it does.”
“Understood,” Kamran assented. They quickened their pace yet again.
It took the Order army three days of forced march to cover the distance from their main camp to Tothmor. Their commanders had judged the march well, making the final approach to the city after nightfall. Hundreds of men, primarily the best marksmen among the archers, had been sent ahead to catch any outlander patrols and silence them. This accomplished, the Order army poised its ranks on the plain before Tothmor with moonlight illuminating their helmets and armour. The city was asleep and its few sentinels unaware of what was about to unfold.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.