North of Lakon, a skirmish was fought. The winter had been quiet, but with the return of spring came also war. The outlander army, after raising the siege of Lakon, had remained in the vicinity to defend their holdings in southern Hæthiod. Further north lay the Mercian camp, likewise defending the part of Hæthiod under their control. In between, scouts and patrols met in constant challenge, testing the readiness of their enemy.
Most of these minor battles took the same form. On one side, scores of the red-clothed Anausa fought with bows and short swords in close, chaotic combat across the barren moor. Their opposition was far more difficult to determine. Hæthian longbowmen stood at the back, supporting Order soldiers, some highlanders and dalemen, and even a few whiterobes wielding great hammers. It seemed men from all over the Realms had gathered to fight the outlanders, but in such low numbers that the fight was even. Neither side was eager to press forward; the closer the fight moved to the enemy camp, the greater risk of enemy reinforcements. As dusk fell, both contingents felt the point had been made and regrouped in order to retreat. The wounded were pulled back, and the skirmish concluded.
The Mearcian camp resembled a field sown by an inebriated farmer. Tents rose into the air in scattered constellations across the area. Some lay solitary, others clumped together. The Order army attempted some imitation of organisation, whereas the Hæthian levies under their king had made camp with little forethought. One small part had the strangest assortment of warriors; they were a mixed group of drakonians, Hæthians and highlanders, who had followed Brand into his exile. The dalemen, divided under the leadership of several lords, had simply raised their tents where they saw fit.
In what could reasonably be called the middle of the camp, William’s tent stood. Nominally the captain of the army, he had called for a council of war. Count Hubert, representing his king and the Hæthians, had already arrived, as had Prince Flavius of Aquila for the dalemen. The captain and the count were in easy conversation, while the prince mutely kept to himself, when a knight entered the tent.
“Sir Vilmund,” William spoke questioningly. “I bade Sir Ewind to appear, not you.”
“I am aware, captain. The other knights and I felt that another should meet with you.”
“You felt?” William repeated brusquely. “What manner of insubordination is this?”
“None intended, captain,” Vilmund claimed. “With spring arriving, battle seems inevitable. But many of the knights, including myself, doubt the legitimacy of the orders we might receive.”
“How dare you impugn Sir William’s honour!” exclaimed Hubert, jumping out of his seat.
“It is not the captain but his counsel we call into question,” Vilmund retorted. “You have an outlaw and oath breaker acting as your lieutenant,” he continued, addressing William.
“Sir Adalbrand is the best commander in the Realms,” the captain argued. “I would be a fool not to heed his advice.”
“He has no right to that title,” Vilmund spoke with utter contempt. “He is not even in the Order. His blade was broken and he pronounced a knave. The honour of every knight under your command is forfeit if you follow this man.”
“You follow me,” William proclaimed. “That is all you need to know.”
“As the Codex proscribes, any knight is bound to refuse an unlawful command,” Vilmund continued.
“Every order is given by me and thus lawful,” William declared with a clenched jaw. “It is not the place of any knight to question it.”
“That is not our view. As long as the outlaw pulls your string, captain,” Vilmund said, speaking the title slowly, “do not expect the knights to agree with you.” Without being dismissed, he turned and left the tent.
Hitherto silent, Prince Aquila rose from his seat. “I see this council is nothing but a waste of time. As I have no interest in committing my soldiers to a fight, especially not without the knights on our side, I think that concludes our meeting.” He left as well with haste.
Sighing, William turned towards Hubert. “At least you are not in a hurry to leave.”
“Boy, you know I am itching for a battle as much as anybody,” the count told his old pupil. “If you decide it, I will convince the king to march the Hæthians south alongside you.”
William shook his head. “We cannot risk an engagement if our cavalry refuses to fight. I should have them all flogged! The question is whether it is merely Sir Vilmund and a few malcontents, or if many of the knights are on their side.”
“While I agree ardently with flogging men refusing to fight, we must consider what was said,” Hubert admitted. “The knights hate Adalbrand. For reasons I have never understood, Prince Aquila blames him for being the reason that King Adelard sent him here. Even Leander is spiteful towards him for having kept reinforcements in Adalrik that were meant for Hæthiod.” The old count exhaled. “He certainly has a gift for making enemies.”
“Brand has been the architect of all our victories,” William said despondent. “Tothmor and Polisals were freed because of him. His gift for strategy is invaluable.”
“But is it more valuable than five hundred knights?” Hubert asked pointedly.
William breathed heavily. “He is my friend. I failed him in Middanhal. How can I fail him again?”
“And to all the soldiers out there, you are their captain,” Hubert retorted. “You cannot afford to fail them either.”
Leander emptied his cup. “I swear, if we ever run out of wine, I am leaving. This has been the dullest winter of my life, worse than last year spent in Korndale.”
Troy sipped with more caution from his own. “Part of me should desire excitement, but I can’t say I mind things being dull. I only take exception to having spent another winter in camp. Winter is meant for cities.” He shuddered.
“It serves you right for trotting off with a band of fortune seekers,” Leander admonished him, pouring another cup.
“When I trotted off, they were a respectable band led by a knight,” Troy defended himself. “How was I to know he’d be declared an outlaw?”
“Ill fortune follows that man like a dog follows the butcher,” Leander mumbled.
“I don’t regret it,” Troy declared. “Seeing the highlands was the best experience of my life. The beauty of the land, and the people there know to appreciate bards.”
“I bet if you drank all their wine, their tune would change.”
“I’ll have you know they were happy to serve me.”
“I always knew they were a strange lot.” Leander took a healthy draught from his goblet.
Troy sent him an inquisitive look. “Leander, are you well? You seem – unsettled.”
“Half my land is in the clutches of murderous savages. Should I be fine?”
“No, of course not.”
“That damnable priest told me things would get better when we returned to Tothmor,” Leander mumbled into his cup. “Another robe proving to be a damned liar.” He threw his head back, emptying his wine.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing.” Leander paused, putting his cup on the small table in the tent. “I had a letter yesterday from Tothmor.”
“What did it say?”
“The sibyls have examined Theodora. She is pregnant.”
“The queen?” Troy exclaimed.
“Who else?” Leander asked with irritation.
“Of course. I am just surprised. Isn’t that great news?”
“Have you told the men? They’ll be overjoyed,” Troy claimed.
“Because this means an heir?”
“Well… yes, I suppose.”
“That is all that child will be,” Leander mumbled. “An heir. A piece on the board.”
“Neither you nor the queen will look upon him or her that way,” Troy insisted.
“Does it matter what I do? The way it seems, I will be here when that child is born. It might be years before I return to Tothmor. I could die in battle tomorrow and never meet it.”
“Count Hubert won’t allow that,” Troy declared. “Don’t throw away the olive before it’s been cured. Before you know it, this war is over and your child will have its father home.”
“Troy,” Leander asked with a tired voice, “what do you or I know about fathers?” Troy did not have any immediate response. Leander reached out to pick up the wineskin. “I am tired. I will try to sleep.”
“Of course. We’ll talk another time,” Troy said. He got up and left while the king poured himself another cup.
Brand’s tent contained two cots and a table. On the latter lay a crude map of southern Hæthiod and the Reach beyond the Langstan; Godfrey and Brand sat on the former opposite each other.
“I didn’t see much activity yet,” Godfrey told him. “But I did not venture much beyond Rund. The city here,” he elaborated, pointing at a settlement.
“I remember seeing it in the distance during my own sojourn into the Reach. About a week south of the wall, correct?”
Godfrey nodded. “Any reinforcements or supplies will be sent to Rund first and then north across the Langstan to reach Lakon or the outlander army.”
“What are the chances they might enter Hæthiod from the east? They did so in the initial invasion.”
“It seems unlikely. The land east of Hæthiod is hilly. It will take them much longer to enter Hæthiod than if they approach from the south,” Godfrey explained. He pointed at the map again. “The outlanders consider everything beyond the Langstan to be inviolate. A small force in this area could cause untold damage.”
“The idea appeals to me,” Brand conceded, “but leading my men into the Reach is not lightly done. We will be in hostile lands with an entire army between us and home.”
“If we delay going on the offensive much longer, the opportunity may slip from our hands.”
“There is a reason the outlanders did not advance further after taking control of Hæthiod. Did you ever wonder why so many of their troops were pulled back?” Godfrey asked.
Brand frowned. “I assumed for supply reasons.”
Godfrey shook his head. “An insurrection was instigated in their cities, forcing the Godking to pull back troops to quell the riots.”
Brand scratched his cheek. “How great a threat does the insurrection pose against this Godking?”
“It is a distraction at best,” Godfrey admitted. “His rule is absolute and cannot be challenged for long. Soon, he will turn his full attention, not to mention his full armies, against Adalmearc once more. If we are to take advantage of the disarray among the outlanders, we must act now.”
Their conversation was disturbed by the arrival of William. Entering the tent, the captain glanced at Godfrey. Brand gave the latter a nod, who left. “I see your spy has returned,” William remarked once they were alone. “Not the most auspicious company to keep.”
“Many would say the same of me.”
“I grant you that,” William admitted. “When judgement comes easy, it rarely comes fairly.”
“All too true. What brings you by? Something you wish to discuss?”
William took a deep breath. “Some of the knights are refusing to fight. Prince Aquila is stubborn as ever. We may only have the infantry and the Hæthians with us to take Lakon, along with your band, of course.”
“Knights refusing to fight?” Brand frowned. “That is unheard of.”
“It is not cowardice. They question my leadership.”
A knowing expression spread across Brand’s face. “Because of me.”
“Yes. I cannot say how far it spreads. We will know once we march out.”
“William, facing the outlanders on the field without cavalry is preparing for defeat.”
“You defeated Sir Athelstan on those terms,” the captain countered.
“Because I had fifty Templars and favourable terrain,” Brand reminded him. “Not to mention, I knew exactly how Athelstan commands. We have none of those advantages here.”
“Perhaps we can outmanoeuvre them,” William suggested. “We move to threaten Lakon. They will have to intercept and give us battle on terms we dictate.”
“Or they will march north and threaten Tothmor, ravaging the land. We need the outlanders contained in the south,” Brand argued. He paused for a moment. “We need them weakened.”
“How can we accomplish that? It will be difficult to raid their supply lines, and Lakon offers them much protection.”
Brand took a deep breath. “We must send forces into the Reach. They will not expect us to attack them there. After all, we have never done so before.”
“I see the merit of your proposal, but choosing whom to send must be done with the utmost care. Only our best and hardiest can be expected to prevail if we are to send them deep into hostile territory without reinforcements or support.”
“You need not worry. All my men knew I expected to lead them into the Reach on this campaign. We will simply be marching there sooner than expected,” Brand said with a wry smile.
“You cannot be serious! I will not be sending my best lieutenant on such a dangerous errand. I would rather go myself,” William declared.
“I have no doubt you would, but if you did, this army would fall apart. Just the fact that you come here to my tent to discuss strategy is more fuel for the knights’ animosity against me,” Brand pointed out.
William stared at him, looking crestfallen. “I need you here to help me command the army.”
“If I stay, you will not have an army to command.”
“Sending you to near certain death cannot be the answer,” the captain maintained.
“William, I have always admired how reasonable you are. This is the obvious solution. The shadow cast upon your leadership is gone. I can lay the groundwork for our campaign into the Reach, scouting the land while whittling away at the outlanders. My warriors are tougher than stone and well-suited for this kind of fighting.”
William stood in silence. “Damn you,” he muttered. “I hate how you can always sway me.”
“You bear this burden admirably,” Brand remarked with a slap on the shoulder.
“Let the quartermaster know what you need,” William told him. “Come see me before you depart.”
“I will, and I shall. Do not worry,” Brand said with a light heart. “I will return soon enough. We shall meet again before you know it.”
William left the tent, and it took only a moment for Godfrey to return. “That seemed important?”
Brand exhaled. “We will leave for the Reach as soon as we are ready. Sir William is in agreement.”
Godfrey nodded. “I will leave ahead of you and gather what intelligence I may.”
“See that you do.”
With another nod, Godfrey departed from the tent, and soon after, the camp.
Of all the motley bands in the Mearcian camp, Brand’s followers stood out the most. Their count was one hundred, give or take, and they had little in common except being under Brand’s command. A handful were whiterobes from the highlands, providing spiritual aid to the rest of the Mearcians and hammer blows to the outlanders. Many hailed from Adalrik, following the only man they considered a true atheling of Sigvard, even if that road led them to the Reach. Some were Hæthians, seeing the dragonborn as the best leader in the fight against the invaders. Lastly, ordinary highlanders besides whiterobes could be found, and their number included both men and women; they came mostly from Clan Lachlann, of the same name as Brand’s mother and following their clansman into battle.
As Troy returned from Leander’s tent, he found the others occupied in casual ways; most of them watched one of the highlanders sparring Glaukos, known to be the strongest swordsman among Brand’s followers. “You cannot hesitate,” he admonished his opponent. She was panting for breath, holding a sword with both hands while glaring at Glaukos. “If you are going to fight without a shield, you cannot allow your enemy the opportunity to strike first.” Gwen, kinswoman to Brand, raised her sword and swung it over her head with a loud cry. Glaukos quickly stepped back, out of its reach. “Better,” he acknowledged, stepping forward to touch her leg with the flat of his own blade. “But you also need to hit, or you remain just as vulnerable.”
“To Hel with your advice,” Gwen grumbled, rubbing her smarting thigh. Despite her outburst, she readied herself and renewed her attack, continuing the sparring.
Troy sat down next to Geberic, who was cleaning his boots. “Quiet around here.”
“The lads are enjoying the mild weather, I suppose,” the gruff drakonian replied. “Quentin and Nicholas are out shooting, I’m guessing, and gods know what Matthew and Baldwin are up to. I’ll have to teach that boy a thing or two if he’s ever going to make a proper sergeant.”
“I think that race has been run,” Troy said with a good-natured manner. “Anyone making the meal?”
“That’s all you bards think about,” Geberic grumbled. “Food, drink, and song.”
“True, and doesn’t it sound wonderful?”
Geberic stopped his cleaning. “Fair point.”
Nearby sat another heathman, idly carving a small stick into chips. He was quiet in nature, but he had an eerie ability to procure any kind of goods through barter, ensuring his popularity among his peers. They knew little about him except that his name was Jerome from Tothmor. All assumed that like others, he was simply a heathman who had heard the tales surrounding Brand and had come to fight under the captain’s leadership for his homeland. None of them knew that he was a former Red Hawk in service to Konstans, dragonlord of Adalrik, who had promised to fill Jerome’s hands with gold if he made sure Brand never returned to Adalrik again.
Patiently, Jerome continued his work making kindling while keeping an eye on the captain’s tent and those who guarded it. At all times, one of the former kingthanes now sworn to Brand’s service remained by the opening, keeping vigilant day or night.
Along with Jerome, all the men sitting nearby looked up to see Godfrey stride past them, leaving Brand’s tent with his walking staff in hand. Their inquisitive looks followed the wanderer as he left in haste. Behind them, Brand appeared. “Geberic.”
“Yes, milord!” The man-at-arms snapped to attention.
“Tell them all to make preparations. We break camp tomorrow or the day after. We will need provisions for several weeks.”
“Yes, milord.” Soon after, bustling activity replaced leisure among the hundred followers of the Dragonheart, all of them appearing to be loyal.
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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; certain 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.