The day after leaving Ardbeann, the group of whiterobes reached the small army following Brand. Spread out across the rocky terrain, it was a mixed affair. Tents of undyed colour were scattered through the area, pitched in clusters without pattern or thought. Here and there, banners proclaimed the identity of a minor house from one of the clans, though none of the emblems belonged to any of the ruling houses. Despite the disorganised appearance, the priests were hailed by guards as they approached the camp.
“Hammer and quill! A bunch of norns, can’t you see?” one of the brothers shouted, making the others laugh.
“It’s me, Caradoc Whitesark,” muttered the eponymous priest. “I’ve brought those of my brothers back who’s ready to fight. Where’s the captain?”
“How should I know?” The guard gave a shrug.
“Lads, this man lacks proper respect for Hamaring and his followers,” Caradoc declared with a threatening voice. He advanced upon the guard, hefting his hammer; behind him, his brethren raised their weapons menacingly.
“Sorry,” the soldier stammered, “I don’t know where the captain is. Probably in the middle of the camp.”
Caradoc broke into laughter. “I figured as much, boy. Just keeping you on your toes. It’s the duty of any good priest.” Still grinning, the whiterobes moved past the guard to enter the camp and announce their arrival.
“Thank you, Brother Caradoc,” Brand told the priest after hearing his report. “The men will be bolstered seeing you and your peers in our ranks.”
“Glad to help,” the whiterobe replied brusquely. They were standing inside Brand’s tent, generously gifted by one of the minor lords who had joined his cause. “Where’s your shadow? That Theodstan fellow. We’ll be in his home soon.”
“Geberic is in Cairn Donn,” Brand explained. “That is why we stopped early today. We are buying what supplies we can before the next stretch of the journey.”
“Until we reach Theodstan,” Caradoc nodded. “How will the good jarl react upon seeing hundreds of highlanders descend upon his jarldom?”
“We will find out soon enough,” the young captain smiled.
“My lord,” Glaukos spoke as he entered; he and another kingthane had been standing guard outside.
“What is it?”
“Geberic is back, and he is not alone,” the heathman explained quietly. “From the looks of it, he is accompanied by someone of high rank.”
Brand walked to the opening of the tent and glanced outside. First, his eyes caught the banner of Clan Cameron progressing through the camp; looking down, he saw twenty heavily armed warriors surrounding an old man in rich furs. The whole procession was led by Geberic. While still some thirty paces away, Geberic gestured for the others to wait and approached Brand alone. “Milord,” he spoke with a subdued demeanour.
“Who is this?” Brand nodded towards the old man.
“That, milord, is the rí ruirech himself,” Geberic explained, causing every man to react with surprise.
“That is King Brión?” Brand asked incredulously.
“None other. His men approached us in the city and said the king demanded a meeting with you. They followed us back here,” the man-at-arms elaborated.
“We better give the king what he desires. Let him come,” Brand commanded, retreating into the tent.
Moments later, the tent was more than crowded. In the back stood Brand, flanked by Glaukos, Geberic, one of his kingthanes, and Caradoc. Opposite stood Brión, king of Heohlond, and as many of his sworn men as could fit inside. Appearing to be in his seventies, the monarch stood straight and did not seem burdened by his years. “Perhaps,” the king began to say in a hoarse voice, “we might speak privately, Lord Adalbrand.”
“My king,” one of his men exclaimed in disapproval.
Brión raised a hand dismissively. “I doubt the noble Lord Adalbrand will cut me down during a civil meeting. If his men can trust that I will not knife their captain during our informal conversation,” he continued with a sardonic smile, “I think we can extend the same courtesy.”
“Of course,” Brand agreed. “Your gallóglaigh may rest easy. No harm will come to you by my hand or any of my men.”
“You heard him,” the king added. “Leave us. All of you.” His protectors exchanged glances but finally did as commanded; Brand’s men did the same, leaving the two groups to stand outside, staring menacingly at each other.
“I regret I cannot offer you a seat, my lord king,” Brand spoke politely. “We have only the barest of necessities in my small band of followers.”
“Your army, you mean,” Brión corrected him. “Your army consisting of my subjects.” He gave Brand a scrutinising glance, having to raise his eyes to look the captain in the face. “Are you surprised by my visit, Lord Adalbrand?”
“I had expected some form of reaction once we entered the lands of your túath,” Brand confessed, “but I did not imagine my lord king would appear personally.”
The monarch gave a joyless smile. “You know our words. No wonder you have fooled these people into following you.”
“Each man in this camp has come because he believes it is the right thing. Same goes for the women,” Brand added, and a genuine smile flickered across his face.
“Regardless,” Brión continued, “I came to give you a warning. I will not accept my people going to war against Adalrik.”
“They are not,” Brand argued. “My enemy is the jarl of Vale and his ilk.”
“He is the lord protector,” the king spoke pointedly. “He is Adalrik. He has levies, the Order, and mercenaries on his side. While you have a ragged band of malcontents. I would not care if all of them die on some gods-forsaken field in the low lands, except for how it reflects upon me.”
“How would it reflect upon you, my lord king?” Brand asked courteously.
“As if I have no control over my own kingdom. As if the tuatha do as they please. As if when the oireacht assemble, another táinaiste than my son should be chosen.” Confusion touched Brand’s face briefly, and Brión gave another mirthless smile. “I see you have not learned all our words yet. Perhaps you should stay longer in the high lands than a few weeks.”
“If that is why you came, consider your warning delivered,” Brand told him.
“You will not heed my words,” the old man contemplated. “You will continue ahead, ignoring all the ill omens until you are utterly defeated.”
Brand could not help but laugh. “Forgive me, my lord king, I mean no offence. But I have never known defeat on the battlefield, and I do not intend for that to change.”
The king gazed at him intensely. “I have heard the tales. In part, that is why I came myself rather than send an envoy. I wanted to measure the man who brought the famous Athelstan of Isarn so low. No doubt these men praise you for that,” Brión scoffed. “Many of them would have lost someone when Athelstan won the battle of Cairn Donn.”
“It counts in my favour to some,” Brand admitted.
Brión nodded. “I have taken my measurements, and I shall rest easy tonight. I have no doubt you are most capable at winning battles, Lord Adalbrand.” The title was spoken with little reverence. “But you have no knowledge of winning wars and the peace that must ensue. You gather peasants to your cause, spiting the lords whose fields will not be worked when summer comes. Nor will the lords of Adalrik look kindly upon the man leading an army of invaders to ravage their lands and renew an already costly civil war. Making friends of farmers and enemies of noblemen is a poor strategy for any ruler.”
“If you will allow me a question, my lord king. Have you read Master Anselm and his treatise concerning governance?” asked Brand.
“I have little need for books to teach me this subject,” the king spoke with disdain. “I have ruled as king longer than you have been alive, boy.”
“Allow me nonetheless to share his wisdom,” the captain requested. “Afterwards, my lord king can tell me if the old master’s words ring true.”
“Get on with it, then.”
“Master Anselm explains that if an enemy is within your power, there are only two reasons for letting him live,” Brand stated. “The first is if he cannot possibly be of any threat to you, and you wish to appear magnanimous.”
“The second reason for letting him live is if killing him would only create more enemies.”
“I see your point, but I imagine you will explain it to me nonetheless,” the king remarked with a sigh.
Brand gave a sardonic smile of his own. “If you had the power to stop me, you would have done so by now. You realise the danger in opposing me, the son of Arngrim and the victor against Athelstan, which are only two out of many reasons why your people support me. Thus, you have come in a feeble attempt to discourage me from any course of action that would upset your tenuous relationship with Adalrik, because discouragement is your only weapon against me.”
Brión took a deep breath. “You have a king in your tent, boy, and rather than attempt making an ally, you let your arrogance rule your behaviour. You best return to your books, for you have much to learn. I bid you farewell, Lord Adalbrand. We shall not meet again.” The king turned to walk out of the tent.
“Not unless it is on the steps of the Temple in Middanhal,” Brand spoke quickly.
Brión stopped abruptly and glanced over his shoulder, laughing hoarsely. “If that is the case, I will bend my knee gladly. But my instinct tells me that if I ever see you in Middanhal,” he continued with a contemptuous smile, “it will be because your head gazes down upon me, mounted on a spike above the gate.” The king left, and his men joined ranks to escort him out of the camp.
Brand’s own men filtered into the tent. “What did he want?” asked Alaric, who had arrived late and been pacing outside anxiously, hearing his lord was unguarded.
“Just empty words. Did we get supplies in Cairn Donn?” Brand asked.
“Aye, enough to last us a week, perhaps. Longer, depending on what we might gather,” Geberic informed him.
“Good. We can take our time marching out of Heohlond. There is still a chance for more of the brave highlanders to catch up and join our ranks,” Brand considered.
“Aye,” Geberic grinned. “Never thought I’d march alongside a band of stone-lickers, but damn me if it doesn’t feel good to see more of them arriving each day.”
“Get used to it. We have only just begun,” his captain declared smiling.
The next day, Brand’s army set into motion once more, continuing their march west. The land they passed through could hardly be called fertile, and for the most part, they encountered only brown grass and the occasional goat, the only beast that could subsist on such feed. As they progressed, this began to change. Flowers appeared, scattered across the hills. This was not merely because the highlander army was reaching Theodstan and gentler soil; it was a sign that spring had arrived in full force, finally. Soon, crops would grow on the fields, the animals would give birth to offspring, and food would be abundant. The season of summer, and with it the season of war, was fast approaching.
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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.