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Changing Guard

Tothmor

“I shall always regret I never saw that duel.”

William gave a pained smile. “Baldwin will be happy to recount the tale, I am sure.” He was lying on what had been the marshal’s bed once in the upper chambers of the Order keep, which was flying the banner of the Star once more.

“Bards will be singing it soon, I bet,” Brand claimed, his smile unmarred.

“Gods spare me, I have suffered enough,” William jested, which made his companion grin.

“I will send Troy to keep you company,” Brand threatened. William let his rare laughter sound, though quickly followed by a winced expression. “How is the wound?” Brand asked concerned.

“A trifle,” the captain declared. “I will be on horseback in a few days.”

“I have learned a new word in the outlander tongue,” Brand confided in him. “I cannot pronounce it, but it means ‘Shadow Slayer’. Their name for you,” he added. “Their fear of you is more effective than threats of torture.”

“This wound was not for nothing, in that case,” William said with a wry smile. “Is the city under our control?”

Brand nodded. “Every circle. Our men have begun cleaning up. We have far too many prisoners. We may have to send them to Ingmond to be guarded there. I will send an expedition today to fetch as much water as possible, also.”

“The water!” William sat up suddenly, disturbing his injury and contorting his face in pain.

Brand held up his hands in a soothing gesture. “I have already had the contaminated water removed from the cisterns. We are very low, but I also sent a messenger to our camp, and Sir Ewind will bring any water there to the city with speed.”

“Good,” William mumbled, lying down again with careful movements.

“I will start recruitment as well. We lost about three hundred men. I do not know the number of wounded yet. Except one,” he added with the corner of his mouth curling upwards, looking at the injured captain. “We need to replenish our ranks.”

“It will not be enough to keep the city safe,” William muttered darkly. “We cannot recruit enough to match the outlanders’ numbers. Once they know what we have done, they will march on Tothmor to besiege it, and the city is not in any shape to withstand a siege.”

“I am aware,” Brand declared. “I have written letters to the quartermaster at the Citadel and the town criers in Middanhal, informing them of our victory and our need for aid.”

“The town criers?” William raised an eyebrow.

“The people should know of our success, should they not?” Brand asked, his sly smile showing that his question needed no answer.

“If we are fortunate, the outlanders will not move against us before winter’s end, which gives us a few months. That is not enough time to expect aid or reinforcements from Middanhal. Not when there is no lord marshal to give the order and see it done with speed.”

“You are right,” Brand admitted. “I doubt we can expect the lord protector to care about our plight.”

“We cannot afford being trapped in Tothmor,” William began to explain, closing his eyes. “But if we move against Polisals to the north, we risk being attacked by their army in Lakon and reverse. We must avoid being besieged, and we do not have time to lay siege either.”

“The battlefield is our only chance, and we must do so before their armies link up,” Brand assented.

“When they hold all the advantages, how do we accomplish this? And whom do we march against first?”

“I do not know, and I do not know,” Brand confessed, though a smile played on his lips. “I will have to find out.” He paused briefly. “You should rest. We will speak again later.”

William gave a barely perceptible nod. “Can you send the boy scribe to me later? If you are sending letters to Middanhal, I should write to Eleanor.”

“Of course,” Brand promised, leaving the captain’s room.

As he walked out of the tower and moved towards the district gate, he was spotted by several elderly men in rich clothing. “Sir Adalbrand,” they called out and stalked towards him with an abrupt agility belying their age. They crowded around the young knight, who stood a head taller and gave the impression of a kennel master surrounded by eager hounds. “Sir Adalbrand, we must speak with you!”

“Did you receive our request for an audience?”

“We have a petition you must hear,” claimed one.

“I implore your aid, my lord,” urged another.

“My lord counts,” Brand interrupted them, raising his hands. “I am but the first lieutenant. Your questions should be directed at the captain.”

“Then we must see him as soon as possible,” someone demanded.

“Of course. As soon as his wounds are healed,” Brand smiled. “Now excuse me, I have matters that require my attention,” he told them and pushed his way through the noblemen. Some of them attempted to follow as did their clamour, but they could not keep the young lieutenant’s pace, and he disappeared through the gate and into the city.

~~~~

Three boys stood on the great square by the city gate, looking around. There was a bustle of Order soldiers moving in every direction, but the silver spurs on Baldwin’s boots gave him authority whenever anyone yelled at them to gawk somewhere else.

“Over there, I saw Count Hubert stand on the crenellations while hacking a siege ladder to pieces,” the squire told his companions. “Arrows flying everywhere with nothing to shield him.”

“That’s impressive,” Matthew granted with envy in his voice.

“Sir Leonard must have fallen somewhere around here,” Baldwin speculated, his eyes glancing over the open area. “I hope they did not mistreat his body. He deserved the utmost honour.”

“Can’t expect these filthy dust-lickers to show any decency,” Matthew exclaimed venomously.

“Sir Leonard was the marshal? You saw him fall?” asked Egil.

“No, if I had seen it, I would not have to guess,” Baldwin explained. “But last I saw, he was standing here, preparing his men to meet the enemy once they breached the gate. He knew death would follow.”

“He sounds like a brave man,” Egil mentioned quietly.

“He did what an Order soldier should do,” Matthew declared, touching the star on his chest.

“Let’s begin to go back,” the scribe said to the other boys. “Troy asked me to write a letter for him tonight, and I need to write something for Sir Adalbrand first.”

They began walking up the main street, soon reaching the district gate. Baldwin slowed his pace as they walked under the arch of the gatehouse, eventually coming to a halt. “Right here, this was the first time I was afraid for Sir William’s life,” he spoke quietly.

“I heard about the fight,” Matthew said eagerly. “Was it really what they say?”

“I don’t know what they say,” the squire replied. “I didn’t watch the fight for the spectacle, either. Watching it was worse than when I fought on the walls during the siege.”

“But he will be fine,” Egil reassured his friend. “The lay brother said so, right?”

“Yes.” Baldwin started moving again. “Let’s get back.”

They continued walking through a city that, although liberated, still had an air of oppression clouding its streets. Mostly soldiers were seen outside while the inhabitants stayed indoors; more than the harshness of winter lay heavy on Tothmor still.

~~~~

The first lieutenant of the Order army walked down the road, reaching the third district. It was unusual to see an Order commander unattended, but the lieutenant did not seem troubled, nor did any give him trouble. The locals shied away from seeing a knight approach, and the soldiers showed him the utmost respect; everyone knew that it had been Brand’s idea and plan to assault Tothmor.

At the gate square, he glanced east and west, deciding to follow the main district street as it led to the temples for the male divines. The third circle was possibly the area most changed by the occupation; where it once had been crowded by robes in all six colours, Brand barely saw any now.

He reached the temple for Rihimil; the building itself had seen little change, though its interior was unrecognisable to any follower of the divines. The hall had been stripped almost bare. The tapestries on the walls had been burned. The wall painting behind the altar in the custom of the great Temple in Middanhal had systematically been demolished with a pickaxe, leaving only half-broken stone behind. The same had been done to the floor tiles, as they had been coloured to depict a knight in black armour surrounded by shining white. The statue that had adorned the altar had been smashed to pieces. Only the altar stone itself remained; its white marble was stained dark red.

“Gods’ peace,” Brand called out, “to you and any of your house.” The walls threw back the sound of his own voice.

There was a moment before any answer came. “There is only me,” a voice replied, soon followed by a man in black robe appearing from deeper inside the shrine. “But gods’ peace to you.” His robe was completely unadorned, showing him to be a mere acolyte.

“It is true what we heard? You are alone?”

“I am,” the blackrobe confirmed. Although he spoke and acted in a calm manner, his face seemed perpetually haunted. “I have been doing my best to clean up, though progress is slow. I expect my brothers in Middanhal will send aid once they learn of my plight.”

Brand gave moisture to his lips, his typical nonchalance gone. “Is the place suitable for prayer, or should we wait until it can be cleansed?”

The acolyte looked at the stained altar stone. “Many of my brothers died there. The spilling of lifeblood in a sanctified place is odious to Rihimil, but they were killed because they would not deny him. Sometimes, their voices resound in this room. No matter how much I may wash this stone, that colour will remain, as it should. I cannot think of any places in the Realms where Rihimil would listen as intently as here.”

“Good,” Brand nodded. He took a purse from his belt, heavy with silver, and placed it in the blackrobe’s hand. Being a victorious commander brought other benefits besides the respect of his men. “Put this towards the restauration of the temple until Middanhal sends help.”

“Thank you, my lord,” the acolyte replied with a small bow. Despite the generous donation, he did not seem overwhelmed with gratitude, nor did he seem disdainful. It appeared as if strong emotions were simply beyond his grasp.

“I wish to pray,” Brand continued, and the blackrobe retreated out of the hall.

Walking forward, the knight knelt by the altar. He ran his finger over the reddened marble, his brow furrowed in contemplation. Finally, he leaned forward to place his forehead against the edge of the altar stone, mumbling prayers.

~~~~

Given the scarcity of supplies that Tothmor had suffered for months during the siege and the occupation afterwards, finding an alehouse that served customers was a challenge. Wine was little more than a legend, brandy and other spirits long gone. For those willing to pay an exorbitant cost for watered down beer, a few establishments were still available to be patronised, however. With the promise of a spectacle, Troy was even able to bargain the price down to a level where, as Quentin put it, it only gouged out one eye instead of both.

A rendition of On the Field of Blue followed; there were a couple of times where Troy hummed with closed eyes, hiding the fact that he did not quite remember the words to sing, but the audience was not picky and rewarded him with generous applause. Some coins changed hands, and four mugs of small beer were planted in front of the bard, Geberic, Nicholas, and Quentin. As if on command, each man grabbed his tankard and raised it to his lips.

“It’s a far cry from Middanhal,” remarked Geberic, who was the only drakonian in the company. “Mind you, it’s a lot better than the Crag,” he added with coarse laughter.

“I know what Hel is like now,” Nicholas declared dismayed.

“I’d sacrifice one hand for a decent mug of spiced ale. One of Nicholas’ too,” Quentin claimed with a sour expression; the offered bargain elicited an indignant response from his friend.

They all looked at Troy, who emptied it his cup in one gulp, setting it down on the table with a satisfied sigh. Looking at the others, he was met by stares of disbelief. “What? This was my usual fare before I met Leander.”

“How did a butter-fingered bard like you befriend the king of Hæthiod, anyway?”

“Yeah, what proof do we even have that you know him?”

“Anyone can send off a letter and claim it’s for a king.”

Before Troy could answer, a large fellow with the appearance of an experienced fighter approached the table. As they noticed him, Quentin tensed slightly, while Geberic rested a hand casually on his knife hilt. The stranger cleared his throat. “I hear you men serve the lieutenant of the Order army.”

“What about it?” Geberic asked, keeping his voice neutral.

“I want to join.”

“They’ll take recruits soon enough,” replied the drakonian.

“Not the Order army. I hear you lot fight as his thanes. I want to be part of that.”

Quentin gave a quick, scornful laugh. “Anything else we can do for you? Cup of wine? New clothes? Pay for your next visit at the –”

“If I join the Order army, I will be put on garrison duty with all the green boys. I want to fight the outlanders.”

“Admirable,” Geberic granted, “but we’re not in the habit of trusting the lieutenant’s life to any fellow who walks up to us in a tavern.”

“I was a King’s Blade,” the stranger explained. “Queen’s Blade too. The lives of two sovereigns were entrusted to me.”

“Yeah, and my mother is the Veiled,” Quentin mocked.

“It’s true,” Troy interjected. “His name is Glaukos. I remember him.”

Surprise coloured his companions. “You know him?” asked Geberic.

The minstrel looked up at Glaukos from his seat. “I do. When we fled the city, he stayed behind to guard our escape. He must have done well, because we weren’t pursued.” Hearing this, the other men exchanged looks.

“You’re the bard,” Glaukos exclaimed. “The king’s friend.”

Troy gave a big smile. “That I am.” He hesitated before speaking again, his smile faltering. “The others assumed you died when the city was taken.”

Glaukos shook his head. “I disguised your escape and then left the palace. With the city about to be occupied, there were better ways to fight. I spent the next months ambushing outlander patrols, harassing them as much as possible.” Grudging respect could now be read on most of the men’s faces. “I fight as well as any man you will find. I fight until victory. I fight until death. Your lieutenant could not be safer with my sword protecting him. I only ask for the chance to kill outlanders in return.”

Geberic scratched his beard. “Maybe we can find a place for you. How about you start by sitting down and telling us what you did those months, fighting the outlanders here in the city.”

A chair was dragged from another table and Glaukos took a seat.

~~~~

After sunset, Brand retired to the palace room he had claimed as his own, formerly belonging to some courtier in low standing; it was small, but secluded and offered privacy. After Matthew had helped him remove his armour, Brand dismissed the boy; once alone, he changed into clothes more suitable for sleeping and turned towards his bed.

“I congratulate you on your victory,” a voice spoke. Brand spun around, grabbing his sword and pulling it from its sheath. “I mean you no harm,” Godfrey claimed, raising his empty hands in front of him. He was standing in the other end of the room, almost within sword length.

Brand took the candleholder and raised it above his eyes, letting its meagre light illuminate the space between them. “You. I left you in camp.”

“Proper introductions are in order, I think. My name is Godfrey, if you do not recall, and I have this as well,” the intruder explained, slowly taking a piece of paper from a pocket. He advanced a few steps, placing it on the small table in the room, and retreated again.

Sword still pointed at Godfrey, Brand approached the table, put down the candle, and picked up the paper. It was so worn, the writing upon it was barely legible. Squinting his eyes in the bad light, Brand frowned. “You claim to be a servant of the Highfather?”

“I work with him, yes.”

“Are you here to investigate the temples?”

“I am here to lend aid as I can,” Godfrey answered. “Which has already served you well, I might add.”

“Your information was appreciated, but it does not grant you leave to enter my chambers unannounced at night.”

“Appreciated? You have turned the tide of this war because of it,” Godfrey argued.

“We destroyed a supply train. Of little consequence in the grand scheme of things,” Brand said dismissively.

“Ah, but you did not destroy it. You left the water for the outlanders, and a few days later, you sleep in the palace of Tothmor.”

Brand’s brow furrowed deeply. “Take care, or your next conversation is with the hangman. The rope around your neck will keep you from uttering false accusations.”

“I did not come to speak accusations, only information,” Godfrey declared. “To your benefit as before.”

“Speak quickly, then.”

“You cannot stay in Tothmor, waiting to be besieged. You must move against the outlanders in Polisals or Lakon. Here is what I know,” Godfrey told him. “The garrison at Lakon has three and a half thousand Anausa infantry.”

“They are the ones in red robes?” Brand asked.

“They are,” Godfrey confirmed. “Another five hundred levies and two hundred Zhayedan, their cavalry. Their commander is courageous, almost rash, but not a fool. The streets of the city are tense with numerous clashes between the citizens and the soldiers, leaving the outlanders nervous and hoping to be reinforced soon. They are well provisioned, being the destination for any supply trains arriving from the Reach.”

“What else?”

“Polisals has a garrison of one thousand Anausa, one thousand levies. They do not have any cavalry. Deemed the least important city to defend, it is under the command of the least trusted lieutenant. He is overconfident in his own abilities. There were riots in the city some weeks ago, which was brutally oppressed, and Polisals has been quiet since. The garrison is well stocked on food and water, though less so in terms of equipment.”

Brand gave a slow nod. “Very useful information. If it can be trusted.” He raised the tip of his sword slightly. “How do you know this? How can you know that Lakon is where reinforcements arrive when the outlanders initially arrived from the east?”

“We will speak again, and I shall reveal more,” Godfrey promised with the corner of his mouth curled upwards.

“You will reveal everything in time, I agree,” Brand muttered. “Guards!” he yelled. “Intruder!”

Godfrey’s only response was quickly stepping forward. Brand raised his sword in defence, but he was not the target; reaching for the candle on the table, Godfrey extinguished it with his fingers and plunged the room into complete darkness.

Brand struck out with his sword, using the flat of the blade, but hit only air. He advanced, finding only furniture in the dark. As the door was flung upon, light streamed in from the torches in the hallway.

“Sir!” shouted the guards, confusion erupting as several of them attempted to enter the small space.

“Enough!” Brand commanded. “There is an intruder in the palace. Find him!”

The guards dispersed with alacrity, raising the alarm. As for Brand, he buckled his sword around him and threw a cloak around his shoulders. Leaving the palace, he walked to the Order keep and found an empty bed in the barracks. If any of the soldiers found it odd that the first lieutenant should sleep among them, they did not raise any questions, and Brand slept soundly through the night in their company.

~~~~

The next morning, Brand woke to Geberic standing over his bed with a scowl. “A word in private, my lord?”

“You may have two,” Brand spoke magnanimously. “You can walk with me back to my chambers.”

The two men left the keep to cross the palace grounds. They were barely out of earshot before Geberic began speaking. “When you told me I could go into the city yesterday, I assumed that you meant you stayed inside the palace walls,” he fumed.

“I am not responsible for your assumptions, Geberic,” his master said placidly.

“You walked around on the streets alone,” the man-at-arms complained. “What if you had been assaulted?”

“I was surrounded by Order soldiers everywhere,” Brand countered. “I am quite safe in daylight. Night time, on the other hand…”

“I heard,” Geberic grumbled. “Just now as I woke up from one of the men. Why didn’t you wake me? I am supposed to guard your safety, and hearing about this from some foot soldier is embarrassing enough, not to mention the implied laughter that I am not doing my duty.”

“You have my sympathies,” Brand spoke with a flat voice as they walked inside. “However, I cannot see what more could have been done to keep me safe deep inside the palace.”

“You will quit sleeping alone, I presume,” Geberic scowled. “I’ll get a room for you in the keep.”

“I slept quite well in the barracks,” his master replied.

“Like a common soldier?” There was uproar in Geberic’s voice. “And me, I suppose I should sleep on the floor in front of your bed like a dog.”

“Geberic, it was a jest,” Brand said mildly. “Arrange it as you wish.”

“Very well,” he spoke, mollified. “There’s something else. A King’s or Queen’s Blade, both I suppose, wants to join your retinue.”

“What is known of him?”

“The name’s Glaukos,” the soldier explained. “Troy speaks on his behalf and says he’s honourable. I also tested his mettle, and I am not ashamed to say he beat me with little trouble. I had one of the knights fight him afterwards too, and he held his ground with ease.”

“I trust your judgement. Have him equipped and find a place for him.”

“I will, milord.”

They reach the chamber where Brand’s belongings still lay scattered. Inside, they found a confused Matthew.

“You, where have you been?” Geberic spoke brusquely.

“Here,” Matthew replied, looking around with a dazed expression. “Ever since I woke up.”

“You mean you just woke up,” Geberic growled. “You’ve been of no help to your master.”

“But –”

“Enough talk!” the man-at-arms yelled at the young sergeant, who almost jumped. Brand was already busy dressing himself, looking elsewhere, though a smile played at his lips. “Help your lord with his equipment, and stay by his side like a proper sergeant should! I’ll be back,” Geberic muttered, leaving the room and the boy standing in a stupor.

“Matthew? Chain shirt,” Brand gently reminded him, making him snap to attention. Within moments, the lieutenant was appropriate attired as a knight of the Order.

~~~~

Ascending the tower of the Order keep, Brand knocked and walked into William’s room without waiting for an answer.

“Enter,” William said dryly, lying on his sickbed. Brand gave a wry smile in reply.

“How is your health?”

“I will be ready to ride in a day or two,” the captain claimed.

“Liar,” Brand declared with another smile. “But at least you have the strength to lie, so you are not at death’s door.”

“I never was,” came a grumbling response.

“I have given our situation some thought,” the lieutenant spoke next. “We should march against Polisals, as soon as we can.”

“Their garrison has not been weakened as was Tothmor’s,” William objected. “We do not have the men to storm the walls, and engaging in a lengthy siege will leave us far too vulnerable.”

“Agreed. Which is why we must lure them out of the city and destroy them utterly on the field.”

“Spoken with ease, done with difficulty,” the captain retorted. “Why would they meet us on the open field? Since we cannot take Polisals by storm or besiege it for long, they need only wait us out.”

“They do not know that,” Brand smiled slyly. “All they will know is what we wish for them to know. Trust me. The outlanders will meet us in the open.”

William sat silent in his bed before he leaned back. “Very well. We will march soon.”

“You mean I will march soon with the army. You will stay,” the lieutenant ordered his superior.

“Give me a few more days, and I will be ready.”

“William,” Brand said sternly, “we can argue for an hour that you should remain behind to regain your full strength, also allowing you to handle matters here in Tothmor, or you can agree to it now and save us both the time.”

Brief silence followed. “Fine,” came the resigned response.

“I will need a good lieutenant to lead the cavalry, however.”

“Sir Vilmund was first on the walls,” William coughed. “He is of the right mettle to spearhead a cavalry charge.”

Brand nodded. “As you say. I will leave in a day or two, as soon as the new recruits can be relied upon to garrison Tothmor.” He walked over to the window to gaze outside at the circles, as they stretched out below.

“Tell me every detail of the battle once you are back.”

“You have my promise,” Brand declared, his attention still outside the window. He extended a hand through its opening and began to laugh.

“What is it?” asked William, straining from his bed to turn and look.

“It rains,” Brand explained, glancing at William and laughing louder. “Can there be any doubt left that our endeavour is blessed by the gods?” He turned his attention back outside, watching as people flooded onto the streets with anything they could find to trap the precious liquid.

~~~~

Two days later, Brand deemed the Order army ready. Besides replenishing the ranks and ensuring the city would be properly garrisoned, other preparations had also been made. Ten prisoners among the outlanders had been selected who spoke the Mearcian tongue well and thus would allow the Mearcians to speak with the outlanders in Polisals if need be. The usual train of provisions was gathered along with supplies for siege assaults. The storm ladders that had been used to conquer Tothmor were disassembled and put onto carts in full view of the prisoners.

Like a coiled rope, the army began marching out from the first circle, uncoiling itself to become a long, straight line down the mountain and through the city gates. Their progress was watched by both the citizens as well as the recruits manning the walls. In the case of the former, their behaviour seemed timid but encouraging with the occasional outburst of support at the departing soldiers. In the case of the latter, the new soldiers stood on the walls and towers of Tothmor with muted expressions, openly wondering when they might be marching out to face the enemy.

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Quill

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.

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