Beyond the Wall
The Langstan rose thirty feet into the air, making it visible from some distance. As it came into view, Brand’s people poked each other and spoke in excited terms. Everyone knew of this mighty feat of stonework that ran the length of Adalmearc to the south and partly to the east, but few had seen it before this day. It protected the Realms against raiders from the southern wastelands and the Reach, and it served as early warning against enemies invading in greater numbers. For eight hundred years, it had marked the boundary between Adalmearc and the rest of the world, promising safety to its people staying within its border. No longer trusting in that promise, and for the first time in the history of the Langstan, the Mearcians moved to leave its safety behind and fight beyond the shadow of the wall.
As they marched south, they kept to the west in order to hide their movements from the outlanders. Thus, they were near the border to Korndale upon their approach the Langstan. For many miles in either direction, the wall was unmanned, as this part was contested land since the invasion. Further west, inside Korndale itself, the Order kept watch should the outlanders move in that direction; to the east, the outlanders did the same. In between, the watchtowers lay desolate.
The band’s goal was one of these, and they headed towards the nearest. Glaukos chose nine companions and went ahead. One of them soon returned, declaring it empty and safe.
Brand entered the small door at the foot of the tower, allowing access from this side of the wall. All the towers were built according to the same principle. On the lower floor were numerous cots, a weapons rack, and room for other supplies. Nothing remained of arms or provisions; both had been scavenged at the onset of the war. As his warriors moved ahead to prepare the descent, Brand walked across the room. There were no bodies to be found; either side had long since collected their dead. Only signs of struggle remained. In one cot, Brand noticed stains so dark, few would have guessed it had once been blood. It spoke of men taken unaware, killed in their sleep. In silence, Brand turned and walked upstairs.
The upper floor contained furniture and a rudimentary kitchen with a hearth. It was otherwise empty, apart from the telling stains upon the floor planks or sprayed across table and chairs.
Brand blinked as Geberic’s voice reached him. “Yes?”
“The ropes are ready. Shall we make the descent?”
The Langstan held no gates; the wall was not built with the intention that any should cross it. The watchtower gave access to the top of the fortifications, but descending down the other side was more arduous. All had to be lowered down with ropes, holding their weapons and supplies in their arms meanwhile. As this took place, those who had gone first began scouting the surroundings. They returned with reports of an empty land; as far as the eye could see, they were alone. As late afternoon arrived, the last of their number reached the ground. Small as it was, their invasion force had entered the Reach, the first to do so in eight centuries; bloodshed awaited.
For the outlanders, the lack of a gate in the Langstan had likewise posed a problem. They needed to move not only warriors but also horses and wagon trains in large numbers to be able to wage war. Their solution had been to build a large dirt ramp on either side of the wall, about ten feet wide. This improvised bridge across the Langstan lay directly south of Lakon. The reason for this was simple; further south, the outlanders maintained a small outpost. In ages past, wells had been dug to supply fresh water, first to raiding parties and later to invading armies. All reinforcements and supply trains passed through this point to replenish their water before continuing further north, using the ramps to enter Hæthiod. Messages and missives sent from the outlander army within Adalmearc also passed through here on their way to the capital and reverse.
As such, the outpost was a vital link in the chain that connected the realm of the outlanders with their forces stretching north, but that was also the full extent of its existence. There was no town, no village or farms nearby. There was not even a permanent structure other than the wells, only a few tents and a lean-to, providing a primitive home for the few soldiers looking after the horses kept available for post riders.
At its loneliest, less than five soldiers might be stationed here. On occasion, the number swelled from the reinforcements marching north to the war. On one particular night, as the cool night of early spring descended, some two hundred men made camp by the wells. A few kept guard, mostly for the sake of routine; the Mearcians were known to never cross the wall, and any rebels against the Godking would be in the cities, not this far from civilisation. Safe in this knowledge, the outlander soldiers drank their fill of water, tended to the few horses belonging to their commanders, and relaxed with the occasional games of card or dice. The next day, they would cross the Langstan and be in hostile lands, but tonight, they enjoyed the calm.
There were about ten archers in Brand’s following, but at least two of them were among the best marksmen in Adalmearc. Each acting as a kind of lieutenant, Nicholas and Quentin lead the other bowmen into position. As there were barely any guards, it was all too easy to unleash their arrows in coordination and kill all of them at once, without a sound. They simply sank to the ground in the dark at the edge of camp, their brethren none the wiser. Most of them were already asleep.
As the Mearcians approached, having surrounded the camp, they kept quiet at first. Like messengers of death, they stalked through the camp and swung their weapons to gruesome effect. The outlanders were so taken unaware, the first sound of something amiss did not come from their dying comrades, but from the Mearcians finally giving in to bloodlust. With terrible howls, they cried out in triumph as they slew the outlanders, and finally the latter seized weapons. By then, it was far too late. The few soldiers remaining were surrounded and cut down. It had not been a battle, it could not be called a skirmish; it was nothing more, nor less, than a massacre.
Once all two hundred outlanders lay dead, Brand walked among their corpses in the camp. The sword by his side, made of sea-steel and lent to him by the Highfather, had remained in its scabbard; in fact, there had not been occasion for Brand to draw it since he had first received it.
Geberic appeared by his side. “It went as well as it could, milord. We didn’t lose a single sword arm, just a few nicks and cuts. There’s a few I’d recommend are allowed to rest for the next days.”
Brand nodded. “As you see fit.”
“There’s plenty of food here. We won’t have problems with provisions,” Geberic continued. “Uniforms as well. Everything we need to play a few tricks on these dogs, should we want to.”
Glaukos appeared, splattered in blood. “At some point, they will notice that these men never arrived. Not to mention the lack of communication if we keep this up.”
“That was always going to happen,” Brand remarked.
“Of course, captain. I merely meant that time is limited now.”
“Naturally. Geberic, have the men begin removing the dead. We need them buried out of sight. Tell Alaric to organise patrols, both to the north and south.”
“I will take one of those going south, with your permission, captain,” Glaukos requested.
“As you wish. Choose the remainder among those willing, but bring along at least one archer.”
“Will do, captain.” Glaukos gave a nod and disappeared.
“How many do you think we killed tonight, Geberic?”
“I’d wager between one and two hundred, milord.”
Brand glanced around; his people had begun stripping the dead of their armour and hauling the bodies away. “So many.”
“Aye, milord, a good victory and a fine start! I’ll be off and tell Alaric to send out patrols, with your leave.”
“What? Of course.” Brand nodded absentmindedly. As Geberic left him alone, the young captain remained standing in the middle of the camp, watching the signs of battle and death slowly being erased.