Rain and River
Weeks after their arrival in the Reach, the Mearcians had established a camp in the hills south of the Langstan. The elevated terrain kept them shielded from hostile eyes, and a pleasant brook nearby supplied them with freshwater. Their numbers were diminished, but not due to casualties; given the need to both hide from outlander patrols while also finding new enemies to assault, many of the Mearcians were sent across the area to scout. Those that remained prepared for the next battle, rested their injuries, or busied themselves with chores.
“Matthew!” Geberic’s voice rang out in growling fashion. “Why are you lazing about?”
“There’s nothing that needs doing,” the boy replied sullenly. He was lying on his back, enjoying the sun.
Geberic moved to cast his shadow over him. “You’re a sergeant to a captain, there’s always work to do. Is his blade sharp and oiled?”
“He told me that was taken care of, and I shouldn’t touch his sword,” Matthew explained with a satisfied smile.
“Have you polished his boots lately?”
“Yes,” Matthew claimed. A look from Geberic made him hurry to speak again. “Well, he’s wearing them right now, isn’t he? It’s not like I can polish them while he’s walking around camp.”
“In that case, find Lord Doran. He needs people to fill the water barrels.”
“I did that yesterday,” Matthew complained.
“And you’ll do it every day if need be,” Geberic roared at him. “Get going, boy, before I whip your hide!”
Grumbling, Matthew got on his feet and moved through the camp, reaching the middle with several water barrels nearly the height of a man. Seeing his approach, Doran called out to him. “Matthew, good. I need you to take at least two trips today, since it still has not rained.”
“I figured.” Sighing, Matthew picked up a yoke that had a bucket suspended on either end. He slung it over his shoulder and began walking towards the brook.
People from the camp could be found by the brook throughout the day, fetching water, bathing, or washing clothes. On occasion, a few tried their luck fishing as well; not from a lack of provisions, as the Mearcians had plenty taken as plunder, but from a desire to eat fresh.
A man, one of the few islanders in the band, stood on the bank with a spear. His eyes were trained on the flowing water, and his body kept still like a statue. There was a flash of silver in the brook reflecting the sunlight, and his arm shot forward, hurling the spear down. One moment later, he waded into the water to retrieve the spear and a fat pike on its tip. With a satisfied grin, he returned to dry land, walking back to camp.
“I wouldn’t mind some fish,” remarked Sandar. He was bathing along with a few of the other kingthanes.
“Plenty of spears,” someone remarked. “Nothing’s stopping you.”
“I’m not good at that. You do it, Hrodgar.”
The other man snorted derisively in response.
“It’s not the same as in the Citadel,” said a third of the kingthanes, “but you can’t complain. We got bread, meat, and even a barrel of ale on occasion.”
“You don’t know Sandar,” Hrodgar claimed. “He always finds something to complain about.”
“That’s hardly fair,” protested the man in question. “Would I prefer to be in a city with a tavern and some honest, Mearcian women? Sure.”
They stared at him. “But?” one of them asked, encouraging him to continue.
“You sounded like you were going to continue.”
Sandar scrubbed his arms. “I wasn’t.”
“True, I wouldn’t mind sleeping in a soft bed. With company. And wine.”
“But?” came a second attempt. “But you are at least happy to be doing your duty? But you follow orders gladly? But you know that honour and oath matter most?”
“But nothing,” Sandar replied with irritation.
“You ever think about Middanhal?” asked Hrodgar. “Who’s the captain now? Is the new prince any better than the old?”
“Not really,” Sandar said, getting out of the water to lie down and dry in the sun.
“Sometimes,” replied the third man in their company. “But I have been a kingthane for twenty years, and I’ve never felt more at peace than I do right now. There’s honour in serving, they always tell us, but the honour of a thane can never exceed that of his lord’s. If I die in this land, at least they’ll say of me that I died with honour.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Hrodgar remarked with a wry smile, bending down to cup some water with his hand and lead it to his mouth.
The whiterobe prodded Gwen in her side as she lay on the ground, making her wince. “Stop that,” she growled.
The priest straightened up and looked at Brand. “See? That wound’s not even close to healed.”
“I’m fine,” Gwen insisted. “What good am I, lying about like this?”
Crouching by her side, Brand sent her a disapproving look. “What good will you be if you disturb that wound and need another two weeks of bedrest?”
“That’s hardly going to happen.” Gwen tried to sit up, but a firm hand from Brand on her shoulder kept her down.
“Gwen, I can spare you for a few days. I cannot spare you for weeks. You will remain at rest until the brother says otherwise.”
“Tyrant,” she grumbled.
“Captain!” Jerome came moving quickly towards them.
With a vague smile, Brand stood up and turned. “Yes?”
Jerome glanced at the kingthane ever present at Brand’s side. “Brother Caradoc asked me to find you. Some trouble, though he didn’t tell me what.”
“Very well.” He turned his head to look at Gwen. “Remember my instructions,” he told her with a stern voice before departing.
With quick steps and followed by both thane and heathman, Brand moved through the camp until he reached a small cluster of tents. Everyone in this part of the camp were either whiterobes or wounded, all of them taking orders from the highlander priest, Caradoc Whitesark. Like most of his brothers, his white robe was covered in dried blood by now.
Arriving, a curious scene met them. A soldier sat on the ground in front of a tree stump; a whiterobe stood behind him, holding him fast by the shoulders, and Caradoc stood by the side, carrying a hatchet in one hand.
“Brother Caradoc, you had need of me?”
“Lord Adalbrand, I need you to take sense into this muttonhead!” He gestured towards the soldier on the ground.
“What is it?”
“He got two of his fingers sliced some days ago, and now the wounds are rotting. We need to cut.”
“I’m fine!” claimed the soldier.
Brand crouched down to look him straight in the eyes. “Wigstan, show me.”
With reluctance, the warrior placed his right hand on the tree stump. The little finger and its companion were bandaged, and the cloth had a dirty, red colour. A faint smell, sickening in nature, emerged from the hand. “It’ll be fine, captain, it just needs a few more days.” He tried to move his shoulders free, but the whiterobe kept him locked in place.
“That rot spreads, you’ll lose the whole hand, you damn fool!” roared Caradoc.
“I don’t want to have only half a hand, captain,” Wigstan pleaded. “I have a girl at home, waiting for me. What if she’ll be disgusted by me?”
“What if I lost two fingers?” asked Brand.
“Would you think less of me if I lost two fingers?”
“Of course not,” Wigstan declared.
Brand placed his right hand on the tree stump. “I will let the good brother take two of mine if you will do the same.”
“Captain, that’s… You know I can’t let that happen. All the others will beat me purple!”
“I cannot let you lose your hand, Wigstan, or worse. I need every warrior in this camp. You can swing a sword without two fingers, but not without your hand. Certainly not if you are dead.” Brand stared with a calm demeanour at the other man.
“Captain, please,” Wigstan pleaded.
“Brother Caradoc, is your axe sharp?” asked Brand.
The whiterobe hefted the hatchet. “Sharper than a snake’s wit.”
“No matter what, your fingers are lost, Wigstan. The only question is whether I must lose mine as well to persuade you. The choice is yours.”
With a pitiful expression, Wigstan gave the slightest of nods. “Fine. Get your hand away, captain. But for gods’ sake, do it quick.”
“Bite down on this,” Caradoc instructed, giving a thick piece of leather to Wigstan.
“You won’t miss, right?” the soldier asked before the leather went into his mouth.
“Miss? Boy, don’t insult me!” With swift, determined motions, the whiterobe grabbed Wigstan’s wrist and let the axe fall. Two fingers rolled away.
“Jerome,” Brand spoke as he stood up. “Throw those in the fire, will you?”
The heathman stood bewildered a moment until he caught on. “Yes, milord,” he hurried to reply, picking up the fingers with a touch of disgust upon his face while the priests made sure the new wounds were treated and tended to.
Just outside of camp, Nicholas and Quentin could be found. They stood with the shorter bows favoured by the outlanders. Some distance away, they had set up a target made of folded cloth. Quentin put an arrow on the string, took aim while pulling back, and released. The arrow flew in an arc to strike the target.
Lowering the bow, Quentin tugged on the string a few times. “Not quite as powerful, I’d say, but damn accurate.”
Nicholas readied an arrow and shot it as well; it landed so close to Quentin’s, their barbs touched. “It’s a good bow,” he assented. “It won’t penetrate a target in good armour, but it’ll do well against most. The outlanders don’t seem to wear as heavy mail as our boys do, so it makes sense they didn’t think their bows needed to be stronger than this.”
“Lucky for the blade boys, they do wear heavy mail,” Quentin remarked. He sent a few more arrows flying in rapid succession. “Good draw. It doesn’t snap on the release.”
“You didn’t pull it back all the way,” Nicholas argued, giving it a try himself. “Huh, it really doesn’t.”
“I told you.”
Nicholas lowered the bow with an apprehensive expression. “Quentin, do you think Ellen will be there when we get back to Middanhal?”
“Himil’s balls, this again?”
“It’s on my mind.”
“Of course she’ll be there. Where’d you imagine she’d go?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Nicholas told him, slightly irritated. “She won’t be getting any letters until we return to Adalmearc. What if we winter here? It’ll be over a year. She’ll think I’m dead.”
“We’re not wintering here,” Quentin told him dismissively. “We got no tents, barely any fuel, and only the supplies we can plunder. Not to mention, once the outlanders grow wise to what we’re doing, these hills will be swarming with enemies. The savages may be dim-witted, but even they will know of our presence before winter.”
“Still, it’ll be a long while before she hears from me. What if she grows tired of waiting for me to return?”
“Yes, what if? Are you going to leave us?”
“Of course not,” Nicholas protested. “I’m not deserting.”
“So no matter what she does, you’ll be staying here. Why worry about it, then?”
Nicholas chewed on his lower lip. “I can’t help it.”
Quentin gave a sigh. “Let’s get back to camp. Maybe some food and song will change your tune.”
Matthew shuffled into camp with the yoke across his shoulders. Reaching the water barrels, he put the yoke down, careful not to spill the contents of the buckets. His burden removed, he unclasped each bucket and poured them into the nearest barrel. Just as he was done, something lightly touched his face. It happened again, becoming a pattern. Looking up, he saw clouds and stretched out his hands. Raindrops met them.
Matthew lowered his eyes to see the rain falling into the great water barrels, slowly filling them. “Really?” he exclaimed in defeat.
Dejected, he went through camp until he reached where the captain’s men were gathering for a meal. Stew was boiling over the fire, and Troy was strumming his lute. “Play ‘On the Field of Blue’, Troy,” someone requested.
“Quentin isn’t here, and I haven’t learned the words yet,” the bard admitted with embarrassment.
“I’ll sing it,” Jerome suggested. “I always liked it.”
“Very well,” Troy assented and began the tune. Haltingly at first, Jerome soon found his voice, even as his eyes darted towards Brand.
The captain had been sitting a small distance away, secluded in prayer; it was Rihimil’s Day, the day of his miraculous escape from execution in Middanhal. His obeisance done, Brand joined the others, receiving a plate. Doran took a seat next to him. “Glaukos and his band are back. They cleared three towers and left two sentries. He wants to return with a new group tomorrow and clear at least two more.”
Brand smiled. “I am sure he would. Tell Glaukos he is to rest for a change. He is not to leave camp tomorrow. When he inevitably complains, tell him to come see me, and I will repeat my command to his face.”
A hint of a wry smile appeared on Doran’s face. “Very well, captain. He is right, though. Three miles is too close to the wall crossing. We should push the outlanders back further.”
Brand nodded. “We should. I will lead a patrol myself. Find me fifteen rested warriors tomorrow, including two archers.”
“Pardon me, captain.” The kingthane guarding Brand at this particular hour suddenly spoke up. “If you’re going out tomorrow, I’d like to join. My blade is getting rusty.”
Brand turned his head to give the thane a slight nod. “As you wish, Leofric.” He looked at Doran again. “Fourteen warriors.”
“Understood. We have supplies for at least a month,” Doran continued, “and that is excluding the watchtowers that Glaukos cleansed today.”
“Very well. Organise a train to collect it tomorrow,” Brand ordered. “How many horses do we have?”
“Five, captain, and two carts.”
“Good.” Brand turned his head slightly up towards the skies; they responded with the droplets of water that were raining down. “I assume water is not an issue.” Nearby, Matthew coughed.
“Not at all, captain.”
“Thank the gods for small blessings.” Brand smiled, setting aside his plate. He moved to the primitive bed that provided him rest at night, lay down, and fell asleep in the soft rain.