Sins of a Father
A week outside of Tothmor, the Order and the Dalemen reached each other. William, Brand, Leander, and Hubert accompanied by knights and Blades rode in front of one army to meet Prince Flavius of Aquila, commanding the forces of Korndale. With numerous riders and banners, the two parties met on the heath between Tothmor and Lakon.
“Prince Flavius,” William greeted him, nodding in the saddle.
“Sir William, I presume,” the prince replied. “Your Majesty, Count Hubert,” he continued. “You must be Sir Adalbrand.”
“A pleasure,” Brand spoke with courtesy. “The reputation of Flavius Ironside precedes the man.”
“As does yours,” Aquila replied with a growl.
“You seem alone?” William questioned. While accompanied by a sergeant and other common soldiers, the prince did not seem to have any lieutenants or warriors of noble birth with him.
“We have brought as many as we could spare, as requested by my king,” Flavius informed them gruffly. “But I had to leave someone to defend my own city in my absence. Let us continue rather than waste time. We have a war to finish.” Without delay, the prince turned his horse and entourage, leading them south.
With glances exchanged between their commanders, the Order army followed suit. Brand slowed the pace of his horse until he was next to Hubert. “Did you meet the prince Aquila in Korndale?”
“We did,” the count confirmed.
“Is this brusque behaviour typical of him?”
“It is,” Hubert nodded. “Though he was against Korndale sending its armies abroad, which could explain his disposition towards us,” he added as an afterthought. On Hubert’s other side, Leander gave a scoff.
“I see,” was all that Brand spoke in reply, spurring his horse forward to ride at the head of the column.
With two armies marching together instead of one, the pace slowed for several days until some manner of cohesion was achieved. About a week later, Lakon loomed in the distance. It was the second-largest city in Hæthiod and a centre of trade that connected the rest of Hæthiod with Florentia in Korndale, allowing primarily salt and olive oil to flow in one direction with meat and fabric going the other way. Its importance was such that the late king Everard had married his own sister to Count Stephen of Lakonia, tying his support to the throne. This had been before it had become apparent that Everard would never have children with his wife, paving the way for Stephen’s daughter Theodora to be made heir.
The queen was not present, but her champions could gaze upon the city in her stead. Due to the great traffic Lakon saw, it had numerous gates, weakening its defences. Despite this, the outlander commander had decided against facing the Order on the field. Whatever the strength of Lakon’s walls, the outlanders were relying upon them. With quick orders, William commanded a fortified camp to be set up, advanced siege fortifications to be constructed to ensure the enclosure of the city, and siege equipment to be assembled in preparations for assaults.
A curious sight was assembled on the table in William’s tent. Rolled up letters were arranged to form a circle with chess pieces placed in various patterns.
“This gate is closest to the castle and can expect swiftest reinforcements,” the knight captain of the Order explained, revealing that the paper and pieces served as a crude representation of Lakon. “I suggest we feint an attack here, drawing their spare forces in this direction, before we begin our actual assault on the opposite side.”
“Seems wise,” his first lieutenant concurred. “Especially –”
“I will not commit any troops to storming the city,” Flavius declared flatly.
“You have come simply to watch?” Brand asked acerbically.
“I have come,” the prince spoke with scorn, “because of underhanded dealings between you and my king!”
Confusion spread among those present for the war council. “I have never exchanged a single letter with your king,” Brand defended himself, his voice wavering between disbelief and anger.
“Yet his desire to court your favour, Sir Adalbrand,” Flavius said with disdainful emphasis on the name, “is why my soldiers are sent here when they are needed to defend my city!”
“Your accusations are baseless, Prince Flavius,” the knight replied coldly. “I have no knowledge of your king’s intentions, and the notion that any king would court my favour is ridiculous.”
“My lords, we are gathered to discuss the assault,” William pointed out.
“By all means, make your assault. But not a single Daleman will participate, I swear by all the eyes,” the prince declared, turned around, and left.
From a chair in the corner, Leander gave a snort of laughter. “I suppose this concludes the council.” He rose and did as Flavius, forcing Hubert to do likewise.
The captain and the lieutenant of the Order looked at each other. “Our losses will be far too heavy if we are to storm the city with only our men,” Brand considered. “Our supposed allies have abandoned us already.”
“I did not understand his reasoning, but he seems to have some grievance against you. Perhaps you could settle matters with him?” William suggested.
“It was he that accused me,” Brand argued indignantly. “I have done nothing against him, yet he is set against me. I see no cause why I should settle anything with him, and regardless, he does not seem inclined to listen to any word I would speak.”
William gave a quiet sigh. “I will give the order for our camp to be further entrenched.”
The days became monotonous. Lacking the men for an outright assault, the Mearcians simply set up a sharp watch surrounding Lakon. Patrols were sent out as well, and supply lines were established under strong escort from Florentia and Tothmor. The Order soldiers were frequently trained by their men-at-arms, but other than that, the soldiers soon descended into games and gambling to fill the time.
“The scouts have returned.” As he delivered the news, Brand entered William’s tent. His own sergeant was already there, playing chess against William’s squire with Egil watching. All of them looked up, however, as the lieutenant walked in.
“What did they find?”
Brand gave a shrug. “Nothing. The outlanders are not manning all the Langstan. They have built a ramp to facilitate easy crossing, which is the part they guard.”
“We should set up our own watch, in that case,” William decided.
“Already seen to,” his lieutenant informed him.
“Good. The thought of the Langstan in the hands of the outlanders is grating.”
“If the outlanders send an army to relieve Lakon, it is less than a week from the wall,” Brand began to speak. “Not much warning.”
“We should send scouts into the Reach. Establish the location of the closest city from which the outlanders operate, and extend our sight into their lands,” Brand suggested. “Should they attempt another incursion, we might even repel them at the Langstan itself.”
William gave a frown. “The men will be reluctant to enter the Reach, let alone traverse it. We will have to enforce discipline.”
“I will lead the first patrol,” Brand declared boldly. “I have already asked for volunteers. Once I return, failure to follow my example will be considered dishonourable. Let shame drive any soldier afraid to do what his commander does. If shame is not enough, the lash will have to do.”
The captain gave his lieutenant a look. “That seems many days to spend investigating a wasteland.”
“It is but the first step. What good is driving the outlanders from Hæthiod when they might return any day?”
William gave another frown. “You wish to establish permanent patrols beyond the wall?”
“I wish to invade,” Brand said with conviction. Egil’s mouth dropped open, and Baldwin’s hand froze in the air as it was moving a chess piece.
The captain leaned back in his chair. “The aim of our campaign is to see this land freed, not the occupation of another.”
“How many centuries have we suffered the outlanders to plague Adalmearc? They struck first, but we should strike last, and with such strength that they never rise against us again,” the lieutenant argued forcefully.
“Brand,” the other knight spoke quietly, “we would need ten times the soldiers we have now just to begin. Half our current forces are not even willing to fight for us currently.”
Brand nodded in agreement. “Korndale would need to be actively involved. Given that their king apparently courts my favour, it should be possible. We need support from Adalrik, but that can be won as well. When I return, I will have the knowledge to plan the campaign and convince those in need of being convinced.”
“Me, first and foremost,” William warned his lieutenant.
“If I cannot persuade you of all people, I will know the cause to be hopeless,” Brand smiled and took his leave.
Walking from one end of camp to the other, Brand was almost at his tent when he saw a familiar shape waiting for him. With a wry expression, Godfrey sent Brand a smile. “Tell the volunteers to make their preparations,” he told Geberic, who had followed him from William’s tent. “We depart tomorrow morning.” Geberic sent Godfrey a scowl but did as told.
“What did your captain say?” asked the wanderer.
“He is reluctant,” Brand admitted, “but if I can verify your information, we have all the knowledge necessary for a successful campaign.”
Godfrey nodded. “All my intelligence can be trusted, you will see. The map I made is waiting for you in your tent. We will speak again when you return from the Reach, no doubt.”
“No doubt. One last thing,” Brand added. “If I find anything amiss, or if my return seems in doubt, I have left orders for your death to be excruciatingly painful. You will not be left alone either for a single moment until I have returned, should you consider making another disappearance.”
“I expected nothing less,” Godfrey smiled.
Evenings in the camp were subdued. There was a general lack of firewood; although southern Hæthiod could be considered lush in some regions compared to its northern counterpart, much of that were olive trees and forbidden to chop down. With spring having only just begun, the nights were cold without fires burning, and most soldiers remained inside in their tents. The volunteers for Brand’s patrol were an exception, having spent the day gathering supplies and preparing for departure. The sun had already set when they were done, each seeking his own tent to sleep before the morrow.
One of the volunteers, who had distinguished himself as a skilled warrior despite being a young recruit, was moving through the dark camp when a voice called out to him. “Soldier!”
The young man stopped dead in his tracks upon hearing the voice. He began walking again immediately, but it was too late.
“Hugh,” the voice spoke again, this time softly. It belonged to Count Hubert. He was standing between tents, darkening his surroundings and isolating them from anyone else still awake.
The Order soldier turned around with a joyless smile. “Father,” Hugh greeted the old man, stepping into the shadows to approach him.
“It really is you. I was not sure if I wanted it to be true or not.”
“What we want rarely matters,” Hugh declared casually. “Right now, I want you to turn around and forget you saw me, but I imagine that will not happen.”
“Why are you here, Hugh?”
“Another thing that does not matter.”
“It does to me.” The count’s face, always expressive of his mood, was painted with anguish. “Either you are here to redeem yourself by undertaking a dangerous task.”
“That would make for a good story,” Hugh spoke with another smile.
“Or the outlanders released you from the dungeons and keep you in their employ as a spy.”
“If it will calm your spirit, Father, I am not here as a spy. I have sent no reports from this camp, and I do not intend to.”
“That seems worse,” Hubert claimed, “for it means you are their hired blade.”
“I ask you again, Father.” The familial term was emphasised. “Let us part ways and forget this meeting took place.”
“If your intentions are honourable, surrender yourself. I will plead your case to the king, and you may serve some way to earn your redemption,” Hubert urged.
Upon hearing the royal title, Hugh snorted with derision. “The king is my inferior in every way. He would keep me locked up out of spite if for no other reason. This is the last time I ask you,” he continued, placing his right hand on his sword hilt. “Let me leave without further words.”
“Are you running away?” Hubert contemplated. “Joining the patrol to escape to the Reach? No, joining the Order would only complicate such a goal. I was right. Your hand has become that of a murderer.”
Hugh bit his lower lip, and chagrin filled his face. “You could have let me walk away.” Slowly, his sword left its sheath.
“It is hard to strike in camp, and we will not see battle any time soon,” Hubert continued his contemplations. “But out in the Reach with just a few men surrounding him, you will have your chance at the lieutenant. Is that your reasoning?”
Raising his sword at his father, Hugh gave the smile of a rogue. “The outlanders know of his skills as a commander. They will pay me most handsomely for his demise. All my troubles will end with a single, swift stab of the dagger.”
Hubert drew his own sword and assumed fighting position with such speed, his son barely had time to react, taking a step backwards. “I cannot allow that.” His voice shook for a moment.
“Father, please.” There was an overbearing tone in Hugh’s voice. “I am your son. If you had the heart to see me executed, you would have raised the alarm already.”
“As my son, responsibility falls to me. If your blood is to stain any blade tonight, let it be mine.” Gone was any tremor from his voice, any anguish from his face.
“I have beaten you before, Father. I remember vividly the day that I finally surpassed you. If I must, I will do so again.”
“Is that all that would hold you back from this terrible misdeed?” Hubert stared at his son. “Would you only surrender to me if you thought defeat certain, and not because honour, loyalty, justice demand you stay from this course?”
“None of those ideals ever served me well,” Hugh muttered and struck his first blow.
Hubert evaded his son’s blade and retaliated. Fighting in close quarters hampered them both, limiting their movements. Nonetheless, Hugh took the offensive, pressing his father back.
Hubert parried each blow. With a countenance that spoke of deep remorse, he struck past Hugh’s guard and landed a thrust into the younger man’s side, swiftly pulling his sword back.
Hugh stared with disbelief at his own blood on Hubert’s steel. His mouth lolled open, and his sword fell from his hands. As his body did likewise, Hubert dropped his own weapon to catch his son and cradle his head in his arms.
“You killed me,” Hugh stammered. His eyes were already becoming void, staring emptily into the night sky.
“My son, my son,” the old count cried. “All those times we trained. You always wanted to be better than me, so I let you win. I wanted to see you smile, I wanted you to be proud. I should have made you a better man instead, that this moment would never have come to be!”
Hugh could not reply.