In Crimson Colours
Close to evening, a procession of fifty soldiers marched on the road north of Rund. The land around them grew dry and dusty as they progressed, and they were sweaty at the end of each day’s march, despite the coolness of their robes. Several days after leaving Rund, they reached the small outpost just south of the Langstan with its promise of fresh water.
The place was empty except for some horses and a few soldiers standing near the animals. Many of the Anausa removed their helmets and wiped their brows, sitting down or digging out rations to eat, while others crowded around the wells to fill their water skins. Idle conversation was exchanged along with laughter, smiles, teasing, and gruff responses.
One of the soldiers shouted a question to the men guarding the horses. When he received no reply, he approached until he could poke one of them in the chest, who responded by collapsing to the ground.
Like lightning from a clear sky, arrows descended and felled several outlanders. Scores of Mearcians issued from the few tents, buildings, surrounding brushes, and other places erected for concealment. Led by Glaukos with murderous delight on his face, thirty Mearcians fell upon the outlanders from one direction; Alaric and thirty others completed the ambush from the other side. Meanwhile, arrows continued to fly, finding their targets in unprotected skulls.
The slaughter lasted a quarter of an hour before all the outlanders lay dead. A handful of the Mearcians had injuries, a few of them severe, but none to threaten life. The whiterobes put down hammers and took out herbal remedies and bandages instead, getting to work on their wounded comrades. Under Geberic’s supervision, the Mearcians gathered those slain by injuries to the head, stripping the bodies of their pristine uniforms. Others dragged the corpses away, preparing a mass grave. The youngest of the band, including Matthew, were sent to calm the horses; the noise of the assault and the smell of blood had made some of them skittish. Stroking their muzzles and leading them to water, they soothed the beasts while the Mearcians continued to clear away the signs of carnage.
Aware of the constant danger that the Mearcians would seek to retake the Langstan, thus severing the outlander forces in Lakonia from the Reach, the Anausa kept a strong watch upon the wall. Sixty men guarded the ramps that served as an improvised bridge for their troops and supplies to pass the Langstan, and they had garrisoned every watchtower for ten miles to the west. Along with their constant patrols across southern Hæthiod, they would have ample warning should any Mearcian forces approach from the north.
Because of this, the outlander sentries took little heed upon seeing nearly forty soldiers marching on the dust road to approach their position on the Langstan from the south. The contingent was dressed in the red robes of the Anausa and wore their customary weapons. On the nearby watchtower, the sentinels watched their progression with little interest, as did the guards on the wall itself and at the foot of the ramp, huddling their cloaks around themselves to shield against the afternoon rain. One of the latter called out to the column as they reached his position; he promptly received a spear in his stomach as a response.
A handful of the Mearcians, kingthanes all, rushed up the ramp to act as the spearhead of the assault. Behind them, their companions quickly surrounded the outlanders on the ground and butchered them. Upon the wall, the kingthanes spread in either direction, mowing down their opposition. Discarding their spears, they drew swords to enter the watchtower and fight in close quarters, clearing it of enemies. A few archers followed them throughout their entire progression, thinning the opposition.
A score of outlanders had been on the ground north of the wall. They ran up the ramp upon realising that battle was afoot, but swift though they reacted, it was already too late. The Mearcians established a shield wall at the top of the ramp, letting their spears hold the outlanders at bay while the remaining archers cut down their numbers. A few of the outlanders, realising the futility in assaulting the shield wall, retreated and used their own bows instead. Seeing this, Doran gave the command to break formation and push down the ramp, overwhelming the last of the enemy.
The rest of the Mearcians, except those severely hurt in previous clashes, arrived soon after and set to task. The whiterobes had new injuries to tend to; nearly all the kingthanes had sustained many wounds, bearing the brunt of the assault. The dead were plundered for their equipment and the bodies removed. Most importantly, scouts were sent north to provide eyes into that region, and a small band under Glaukos marched west along the Langstan; this had only been the first watchtower to be reclaimed.
Once satisfied that all his orders were being carried out, Brand joined his men digging graves.
Each patrol dispatched by the outlanders through Lakonia consisted of twenty soldiers. That was more than enough to handle any small bands of enemies that might have slipped past the vigilance of the blackboots, who scouted along the edges of outlander-held territory. These patrols were rarely eventful; southern Hæthiod was sparsely populated close to the Langstan, and much of the land was dry, nearly barren. Along with the occasional village or farm, the Anausa encountered little else than olive trees.
Further north, near the Order camp, they remained vigilant; even with the blackboots keeping sharp watch, there was always a possibility of a skirmish. Near the Langstan, however, the Anausa spoke freely with each other and seemed unburdened by the state of war, especially on days of sunshine and clear skies.
Their easy conversation was interrupted when they spotted another patrol. Idle speculation upon seeing their counterparts turned into doubt. Hands reached for weapons, doubt was replaced by suspicion, and finally, fighting ensued. The Mearcians charged with spears first, drawing swords afterwards as the skirmish became chaotic. Half the outlanders tried to stem the advance while the other half drew bows.
Blood was spilt on both sides, but the Mearcians were battle-hardened beyond compare, and they cut their opposition down. The last of the outlanders threw down his weapons and attempted to flee. Two arrows struck his back, sending him to the ground; without words spoken, Nicholas and Quentin had reacted in unison.
Their purpose done, the Mearcians quickly prepared to return to their brethren. Two of their number were badly hurt; a few cloaks were made into improvised stretchers. With a slow pace, the band set a course south, back to the Langstan.
At night, the Mearcians filled their bellies without reservation. They had seized more provisions than they could ever need from the outlanders, and they had no interest in trying to cart the sacks and barrels around. Instead, they simply ate their fill. They had meat and fish to roast, flour for baking, and vegetables of every kind, providing for a sumptuous meal that many of the Mearcians had rarely known before. With Troy providing song and music and the weather mild, the warriors lacked for nothing.
“Glaukos has returned. They cleared three towers before they turned back,” Doran informed Brand. “No losses, but they all seem wounded. Our scouts have found hills both north-east and south-west of the outpost. As the water runs through both, either would be ideal for setting up camp. On that note, we have also found three tents in total. I can have the men set one up for you and arrange better sleeping quarters.” The young highlander, who was not only Brand’s clansman but also heir to Clan Lachlann, fell silent and awaited Brand’s reply in calm fashion without any air of pretence. Gone was any trace of the hot-headed warrior eager to prove himself that he had been only last year.
“We take to the southern hills for our camp,” Brand decided. “If needed, it will allow us to retreat further west. Use the tents as a sickhouse for those too wounded to move about. If you give them to Brother Caradoc, he can see them put to use.”
“When you do, ask him about our number of wounded.”
“I already did, captain. We have thirteen soldiers who should not be fighting any time soon, and about a score with lesser wounds that will need a few days of rest.”
“Good. The archers?”
“They all have full quivers. With the outlanders so fond of bows, finding arrows is child’s play.”
“Good,” Brand reiterated. “We rest here for tonight and move to our new camp tomorrow.”
“Very well, captain. I will see to it.” Doran inclined his head and left at a brisk pace.
Dispersed around campfires, most of the warriors were busy shovelling food into their mouths, only taking breaks to exchange jests and laughter. Brand sat at the edge of one such circle, silently eating the meat and bread provided him. Behind, one kingthane stood guard; even in camp with no sign of danger, Alaric insisted upon this measure at all times.
Cutting smoked fish into pieces with his knife, Jerome glanced at the captain from time to time. Even though others were near and with a kingthane by him, Brand radiated a sense of seclusion.
“He’s a quiet fellow, the captain,” Jerome remarked.
By his side, Matthew sat, happily gnawing on bread. “He’s got a lot on his mind, no doubt. I’ve known him to talk more at other times. I’m his sergeant, you see.”
“Are you really,” Jerome remarked, not looking surprised in the least to hear this.
“Been that since the start,” Matthew continued, his attention on his food.
“You must know him well.”
“Oh, I sure do.” His words came muffled as he stuffed large morsels into his mouth.
“Do you think he will be leading any assaults himself? I’ve not seen him draw his sword yet.”
“Of course he will,” Matthew replied, slightly indignant. “When it’s necessary, the captain doesn’t shy away from fighting. At Polisals, I saw him charge the enemy commander straight on, killing him to turn the battle in our favour.”
Jerome nodded slightly, scratching his beard while the other hand fidgeted with his knife hilt. “You must be thrilled to be in his personal company. Fighting by his side and all that.”
“Just doing my duty,” Matthew said, straightening his back.
“I hope I get the same chance as you. Prove my worth to him.”
“I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity,” Matthew declared with a magnanimous voice. “There’s plenty of fights to come.”
“Matthew!” The sergeant snapped to attention as his captain called out his name. “Have you practised today?”
“Get to it soon.”
“Yes, sir.” Matthew emptied his plate and stood up. “I must be off. But maybe I can put in a good word for you when the captain needs men for something.”
“You can do that?”
“Of course,” Matthew smiled. “He listens to me. See you around.” The young sergeant left, and Jerome finished his own meal in silence.