Negotiations at Night
Peaceful days followed in Theodstan after Brand’s negotiations with Theodoric. The jarl had not called a general conscription yet, but had a small force at the ready; they were the soldiers hastily assembled when the army of highlanders had first been discovered. His thanes were training them to make the most of the quiet days. Brand’s sworn men were doing likewise, teaching the highlanders as best they can. Besides that, they were foraging in the area and waiting to hear back from the emissary sent to Isenhart; it would take several days for any messenger to find Isarn’s army, receive a reply, and return. Until then, they were making the most of the time available.
“Captain!” Caradoc Whitesark ran through the rows of men and women fighting, reaching Brand, who was overseeing the training.
“We have been attacked,” the whiterobe panted. “One of our foraging parties. Two dead. The other three are back at camp with minor wounds.”
“Lead me to them.”
Caradoc turned back the way he came, walking with hurried steps; Brand followed straight behind. Soon, they reached the edge of the area that could loosely be called their camp. Two men and a woman sat, looking harrowed. All of them had cuts or gashes, mostly on their arms or legs.
They stood up as they realised Brand had joined them; he gestured for them to be at ease. “Who were they?”
“Isarn,” one replied. “Black swords. I recognised their emblem.”
Brand exchanged looks with Geberic, who had also arrived. “Who attacked first?”
“They did, milord, no doubt about it. We didn’t even know they were present before they were upon us,” the woman explained. “It was an ambush, plain and simple.”
“It was good you escaped,” Brand told them. “Rest and see to your wounds.”
Turning back into camp, Brand began issuing orders. “Geberic, ride to the jarl. Tell him what happened and that he needs to send another messenger under a flag of truce. Isarn’s army is not in the west, it is here.”
“Gwen,” he continued. “Choose five men you rely upon and investigate the area between here and where our people were ambushed. If you see any sign of enemy soldiers, retreat at once.”
“Alaric, double the guards around camp.”
“At once, milord.”
“Caradoc, tell every man to be ready for battle. We do not move out, but if our camp is attacked, they must be prepared.”
The first envoy from Theodoric was travelling on the road south and west, seeking to find Isenhart and present a proposal of alliance. Unfortunately, the Isarn army had marched through hill and forest, far from the Kingsroad and hiding its progress. Unaware of any attempt to contact him, Isenhart had moved his army only twenty miles from Cragstan. They were now preparing camp for the night; their forward scouts had found the enemy and drawn blood, meaning a surprise attack was unlikely to succeed. Instead, Athelstan had decided to let the men rest that they might fight with full strength tomorrow.
To march with speed, they had brought no tents or furniture of any kind; because of this, Athelstan was sitting on the ground with his cousin, Athelbold, studying an old map displaying the local terrain, when Eumund called out to him. “Uncle! Our men have met a messenger from Theodstan under the flag of the horse. You should come quickly.”
Athelstan rose up, walking towards his nephew. “Where is he?”
“He is being presented to my father now,” Eumund explained, as his uncle and Athelbold joined him. “Our men met him after scouting the enemy camp.”
“They found its location?”
“They did,” Eumund nodded. “Their numbers have increased since the first report from our spies. They are closer to two thousand highlanders now.”
Moving through the primitive camp, they came upon the latest dispatched messenger from Theodstan; he was carrying a flag depicting a horsehead, signalling his status as a peaceful emissary. He was in conversation with the jarl, who nodded curtly. “Wait here,” Isenhart told him and turned to look around until he spotted his advisors. “With me,” he commanded, beckoning them to follow him. They walked some distance until out of earshot of Theodoric’s messenger.
“What did he say?” asked Athelstan.
“Apparently, Theodoric has changed his mind,” Isenhart snorted. “He wants to ally with us against Vale. When I asked about the highlander army, I was told a rather ludicrous story.”
Athelbold frowned. “How so?”
“They claim that Adalbrand of all people is leading an army of highlanders, who have joined his cause of their own volition.”
“Brand is alive?” Athelstan exclaimed; relief touched his eyes briefly.
“So they say,” Isenhart scoffed. “And while he has been my enemy until today, he is now eager to ally with me. Along with Theodstan, who refused to submit but has already changed his mind.”
“It might not be impossible,” Athelstan considered. “Underestimating Brand is always a costly mistake.”
“Adalbrand was taken to be executed the very day you escaped Middanhal,” his cousin expressed with a doubtful face. “It seems unlikely he should have escaped that fate.”
“I and both my nephews did,” Athelstan retorted, glancing at Eumund. “Brand’s mother was a highlander. He might very well have sought refuge with her clan, who in turn have sent their army with him home.”
“If that is so,” Athelbold considered, “where are the banners of his clan? Why is this army hiding its name and nature?”
“There can be no cause for that other than they plan deception against us,” Isenhart stated with growing anger. “Just like Vale and Hardling did!”
A look resembling despair flittered across Athelstan’s face. “But why would they lie about Brand? What possible gain could there be claiming he is alive and free?”
“Who is the only commander to ever defeat you, Uncle?” asked Eumund quietly.
Athelbold nodded. “If I wanted to buy time and convince Athelstan of Isarn to retreat, I would use that name.”
“Of course,” Isenhart growled. “They grow their numbers while we idle. Highlanders, Theodstan’s levies, and Vale’s mercenaries all gathering to crush us,” the jarl murmured.
Athelstan took a deep breath. “I suppose it would be too strange if Brand escaped not only the scaffold but also Middanhal,” he spoke doubtfully.
“This is not the first time that Vale has attempted to lure us into a trap with false words of negotiations,” Isenhart continued brusquely. He looked at his brother, his son, and his cousin. “This time, we spring the trap.”
“I agree,” Athelbold uttered while Eumund nodded.
“We will turn their falsehoods against them,” Isenhart declared, turning to walk back. Followed by his kinsmen, the jarl reached where Theodoric’s messenger awaited. “I have an answer to your master.”
“Yes, my lord jarl?”
“Tell Jarl Theodstan that I agree to cease hostilities for now. I shall withdraw my troops from his lands as a gesture of good faith,” Isenhart proclaimed, “and await further message from him regarding how, where, and when we may negotiate further.”
“My lord will be pleased,” the emissary replied, giving a bow and leaving camp.
Near sunset, a messenger arrived in Brand’s camp from Cragstan. He was immediately led to the captain to deliver his message. “The jarl’s emissary was well received by Jarl Isarn,” the thane spoke. “Isarn are withdrawing their forces, and my lord will soon begin discussions of a formal alliance with Jarl Isarn.”
“Thank you,” Brand told him, and the thane left to return home. Meanwhile, Brand’s men crowded around him.
“That’s fortunate,” Alaric declared. “We will avoid a needless battle.”
“It’ll not be that easy to convince Isarn to join forces with us,” Geberic muttered. “He’s more stubborn than a mule. We could be here for a long while.”
“I did have an impression of Jarl Isarn as being particularly obstinate. Strange that he would agree so easily,” Brand contemplated. “He made no demands of hostages from us or proof of our good intent.” He narrowed his eyes, glancing around the camp. “Our position is not particularly defensible.”
“We chose it to be near water,” Glaukos reminded him. “We had no reason to expect fighting.”
“We still don’t,” Geberic added.
“If I were our enemy, I would have us thinking exactly that,” the captain told the others. “Gather my lieutenants and men-at-arms. All of them.”
Night fell. The moon was weak, and the sky was partly clouded. Conditions could scarcely have been better for the soldiers of Isarn that moved quietly through the forest area. They halted as they reached the clearing where the highlanders had made camp. Torches burned here and there, allowing the guards some visibility in the dark night. Besides the occasional movements of the sentinels, the camp was quiet.
Athelstan raised his hand, signalling to the men behind him to stop; they were at the edge of the forest, and stepping forward into the open would reveal their presence. The commander glanced southwards; east of his position, Athelbold was supposed to wait with his contingent of men, and to the west, Isenhart and Eumund with theirs.
It was impossible to spot the other companies; Athelstan had no recourse but to wait until it was safe to assume they had reached their position. Given that they were all moving slowly through a thick forest at night, none of them familiar with the terrain, it was easy to imagine one of the contingents getting lost or delayed.
Tension lay heavy on each soldier wearing Isarn’s surcoat; some had brought spears, and others had chosen to bring only a sword for the close combat that would ensue. Gripping shields, they breathed deeply in an attempt to stay calm before the coming bloodshed. None of them thought to look anywhere but straight ahead at the camp.
It was past midnight when Athelstan finally gave the signal to advance. The first ten or twenty paces, the Isarn soldiers attempted to maintain stealth; they were still at least fifty yards away from camp when they were discovered.
“To arms!” “We’re under attack!” “To arms, to arms!”
From three sides the soldiers of Isarn roared forward, flooding the clearing with steel. As soon as they reached the edge of camp, they met resistance. Rather than sleeping warriors, the camp was prepared for their arrival; from every tent issued men and women clad for combat.
The men of Isarn were not only battle-hardened, but drilled like Order soldiers for fighting in formation; the latter was unfortunately for them of no use under these circumstances. Battle was chaos inside the camp with countless skirmishes erupting across the area, and the highlanders had the advantage, fighting on familiar ground.
Brand stood in the centre of camp. While he wore armour and helmet, his sword was sheathed, and no shield was strapped to his arm. Tonight, he was a captain, not a warrior, and he calmly surveyed the battlefield as best he could. They had built a small podium that allowed him to gaze above the tents. His sworn men surrounded the platform, and unlike their captain, their swords were ready. Even though he was the youngest and least experienced member of this company, Matthew had been given this honourable assignment too. Troy was there as well, clutching his lute and failing at keeping the fear from showing on his face. Lastly, by Brand’s side stood also Brogan, captain of Theodstan’s thanes.
“You were right,” he admitted brusquely. “I did not think Isarn so deceptive.” Several of Theodoric’s best warriors were scattered throughout the camp, ensuring that veteran fighters were present everywhere.
“War makes animals of all men,” Brand mumbled. “Connor,” he called out, gaining the attention of a thane. “Take your company and reinforce the west.”
“Aye, milord! You heard the captain!” he roared with the last part addressed to his soldiers. They spread out in a previously determined pattern, bolstering the defenders in the western part of camp.
Brand’s eyes did another sweep of the fighting. “It is time to end this. Sandar,” he called out. “Send the signal.” Sandar nodded; the warrior was holding a torch, which he now used to light a big fire nearby. The wood burned merrily, letting flames blossom swiftly and fiercely.
The sudden fire was easily spotted in the night, even among warriors hiding further inside the forest. “Charge!” Glaukos yelled. Along with a hundred men, he dropped down from the tree branches where they had been hiding. They rushed through the wood, reaching the clearing to attack the Isarn soldiers in the back.
From another side, Alaric led a similar assault. The attackers became the defenders as their ambush was ambushed. With the highlanders attacking them from behind, confusion reached its climax, and any remaining semblance of order among Isarn’s warriors evaporated.
Athelstan had retreated a few steps from the fighting, standing with a bloodied sword and seeking to examine the battle. His limited field of vision hindered him; all he could see were men dying. “Watch out!” a soldier shouted next to him. Athelstan swung around to find a screaming highlander charging him. He let his shield deflect the incoming blow and struck back; his sword had little trouble piercing the leather tunic protecting his attacker, who fell to the ground.
Others by his side had not reacted as quickly; several of the soldiers around him fell to this surprise assault. Soon, Athelstan was engulfed in fighting. “It’s Athelstan!” someone yelled, recognising him. The highlanders swarmed towards him; all of them had either fought at Cairn Donn against him or lost relatives in that battle.
Pressed from all sides, Athelstan found himself surrounded by enemies and his situation most dire. Regardless, he continued to fight coldly, calculated, and there was no trace of panic upon his face. While his enemies had limited training and poor equipment, Athelstan was an experienced knight clad in the strongest armour known in Adalmearc. Keeping his attackers at bay, the captain of Isarn’s forces had the mental fortitude to locate his own troops fighting nearby. In a skilful dance, Athelstan pushed his enemies back, outmanoeuvring them until he broke through their ranks and joined his own men.
“With me!” Athelstan commanded. “Move as one! Shields together!” His presence and voice brought clarity to the Isarn soldiers fighting in disarray. They closed ranks, protecting each other, and moved to link up with other groups. Some of their brethren, who had been farthest ahead, retreated from the camp to the safety of numbers; others tried but fell before they could get that far. “Retreat!” Athelstan called out. “Orderly retreat! To me!”
Any who heard his command and could comply, did so; the remainder were surrounded inside the camp, deserted by their comrades and struck down. On the other fronts, Isenhart and Athelbold surmised the same as Athelstan had done; their nightly raid had been turned against them, and nothing further could be gained. Only the dark woods held some promise of safety, and each of the Isarn companies pulled back, cutting down the highlanders standing between them and the forest edge.
It was morning when the army of Isarn returned to its temporary camp. The soldiers were exhausted, and many of them suffered from injuries. This was not an excuse to be complacent, on the contrary; guards were chosen among those unscathed, keeping a tight watch of the surroundings. Athelstan had no intentions of being caught unawares twice in the same forest.
While the men saw to their wounds, the commanders of Isarn assembled to hold council. “How did this happen?” growled Isenhart. Despite having fought and marched through the night, he showed no sign of weariness; his rage kept him not only standing but pacing. “There must be a spy in our midst!”
“Or they did not believe us when we claimed we would retreat,” Athelstan remarked with a tired voice. He stared out into the distance.
“It could have gone worse. They did not have the numbers to properly envelop us. We had losses,” Athelbold told them, staring at each of the other men in turn, “but so did they.”
“We could not bring our dead back,” Eumund pointed out, “meaning we have given them valuable armour and weapons. Our enemy is better equipped today than yesterday.”
“What if they told the truth?” Athelstan interjected. “What if Brand is alive and he is leading that army?”
“Cousin, we have discussed this. It is irrelevant,” Athelbold reproached him.
“Everything I know about warfare, I taught him. He would have guessed my intentions and known how to react,” Athelstan continued unabated.
“If that brat is alive, I will see him dead,” Isenhart swore. “Without him, I would be sitting upon the Dragon Throne in this very moment!” His exclamation made his brother whip his head around to send him a disturbed look.
“It does not matter,” Eumund argued. “We have lost the element of surprise. We are exposed.”
“True,” Athelstan conceded. “The highlanders excel at fighting in this terrain with all the hills and forests between us and Cragstan. It will be a slow push forward, giving Theodstan further time to assemble his armies. We have to retreat.”
“Retreat?” The word burst from Isenhart with indignation. “Allow this highlander rabble to send us scurrying home?”
“We will be caught between hammer and anvil,” Athelbold told the jarl. “While we fight step by step to reach Cragstan, Vale’s army will begin to bite at our heels.”
Eumund nodded. “We must retreat until we know the full extent of what we face. We cannot tell how many more of the highlanders will join that army.”
Isenhart looked as if his eyes would burst from his face; upon seeing all of his counsellors in agreement, he became less agitated. “Very well. We will retreat. But one day, I will make every highlander in Adalrik pay in blood for this night,” he swore with malice in his voice. His commanders spoke nothing but simply dispersed to prepare the army to march.