Before sunrise, fourteen men and women chosen by Doran stood assembled in the Mearcian camp. Along with the sergeant Matthew and the kingthane Leofric, they gathered around Brand. The group was mixed and representative of the band as a whole, consisting of a few more kingthanes and other drakonians, some highlanders and heathmen, and even a daleman. All of them wore the red colours of the Anausa and their shields.
“Our goal is to clear three watchtowers east of the crossing. This will give us more warning, should the enemy move down the Langstan or otherwise threaten our control of the crossing from that side,” Brand explained. “Any questions?” The warriors shook their head, indicating their readiness to depart. The captain turned towards Doran, who was nearby. “You have command in my absence.” He looked at the assembled soldiers once more. “Let us move out.”
They set into motion with Brand at the head of the column; among others, the rear was brought up by Jerome.
Keeping a good pace, the group reached the Langstan before noon. Making use of the outlanders’ ramps, they ascended onto the wall and followed it east. All the towers west of the crossing had been cleansed of enemies; it was time to push back the outlanders’ control in the other direction.
The first of the eastern towers was empty; Glaukos in his zeal, leading a band much like this one, had done that days ago.
A mile later, Brand’s warriors reached the next tower, also cleared by Glaukos and his warriors. They were hailed by two sentinels, left behind.
“Anything of note?” Brand asked as they all convened on the upper floor of the tower.
“It’s been quiet,” one of the guards replied. “We’ve not seen any signs of the salt-lickers.”
“Good. Upon our return, you will be relieved of duty and may come with us back to camp.”
“Aye, captain. We’ll keep the watch until then.”
Brand gave a small nod to his followers. “Move out.” The seventeen men and women arrayed themselves like a patrol and marched out of the tower, following the wall eastwards.
The outlanders closest to the crossing kept their vigilance; they spotted Brand and his soldiers at a long distance. The stolen uniforms did little to allay suspicions; the outlanders had grown wise to the fact that Mearcian soldiers could be close by. They hailed the approaching warriors, who had no response; none of them spoke the same tongue as the outlanders. The alarm was raised and all pretence abandoned.
Rather than wait, the outlanders opened the door between the wall and the tower and charged forward with spears lowered. Meanwhile, many of their brethren used their bows atop the tower, sending arrows down. The few archers among the Mearcians returned the favour, but the angle and crenellations meant they had little chance to hit.
The attackers lowered their spears as well, leading to a stalemate as neither could gain ground. This suited the outlanders, keeping the Mearcians on the wall and exposed to arrows from above. Acting quickly, a Hæthian longbowman jumped onto the crenellations next to him. The extra elevation would not avail him against the outlander bowmen, but it did afford him line of sight above the heads of his compatriots. With speed, he sent several arrows against the door opening, hitting more than one outlander and disrupting their spear wall. His position also made him an obvious target, and outlander arrows flew against him. One of them hit and sent him hurling down, but the damage was done.
Upon a quick nod by Brand, Leofric at his side was spurred into action. He threw his spear forward like a javelin. It was too heavy and unbalanced to have any deadly effect, but it further disturbed the outlanders’ formation. Meanwhile, the kingthane drew his sword and leapt into close combat. He felled one soldier and pushed the others back, creating an opening behind him.
Taking advantage of this, Brand entered the fray, wielding the sword of sea-steel. It cut spears in twain with ease. The rings upon chain shirts burst when struck. Flesh, blood, and bone offered no resistance. For the first time since their sojourn into the Reach, the soldiers saw the Dragonheart in battle and how his blade wrought devastation. Enemy after enemy fell to his strikes. Spurred by the sight of this, the Mearcians roared and charged into the watchtower.
With the outlander formation broken, their ability to resist had been lost as well. They were simply no match in close combat for the experienced Mearcians. Once the upper and lower floors had been cleared, a handful continued up the stairs to kill the remaining enemies on the top of the tower. The remaining encircled Brand, staring with reverence as he cleaned his sword and sheathed it.
All in all, twenty outlanders lay dead, and the Mearcians had lost none. The victory still bore a cost. The longbowman whose arrows had opened the way into the tower had taken an arrow to the chest, leaving him unable to fight on; he would have to remain here until the band returned for him on their way back. Besides him, several of the others had taken wounds, most notably Leofric, who had gone first into the assault. He disdained any notion of being left behind, and in the end, sixteen warriors continued towards the next tower.
As before, stolen uniforms did not fool the outlanders for long. Arrows flew as the Mearcians approached with raised shields. This time, the door remained closed; instead, these outlanders relied solely upon their archers for the initial attack.
Several of the attackers dropped their spears to climb up the outer ladder hewn into the stone. Meanwhile, Brand summoned a warrior to the front who had brought a great axe. While dressed in red for the moment, he was a whiterobe and knew how to handle the tool in his hands. With speed, he began reducing the door to kindling.
As his axe thrashed the planks, spears were thrust through the gap. The priest roared in anger, aiming his axe once more. He struck where the hinges sat, finally destroying the door.
Over the protestations of his thane, Brand leapt into combat as the first. With his shield protecting him, his sword hacked spears to pieces and let him carve a path forward. Seeing the blade of sea-steel, the outlanders cried out in terror; some turned to flight. Those remaining were cut down without mercy as the Mearcians spilled into the room.
Some hurried upstairs to help those that had scaled the tower; flanked by Leofric and Matthew, Brand descended to the lower floor, finding it empty. The door stood wide open; in the distance, a few soldiers in flight could be seen northwards over the open plains.
Brand rushed up the stairs once more and found his remaining archers. “With me,” he yelled at them and ran past them onto the wall itself. Once outside the tower, he pointed to the fleeing figures. “Shoot!”
The archers followed his order readily, sending arrows into the air at speed. They flew gracefully up, reaching the peak of their flight before descending down. All of them struck into the ground. “Sorry, captain,” expressed one of the archers. “They’re too far away.”
Brand simply nodded and leapt up the ladder to reach the top of the tower. Climbing over the parapet, he saw that the fighting was done. Numerous bodies lay across the summit. Their faces were frozen in various expressions. Some held fear, others fury; most seemed simply surprised that their life had come to an end.
Surrounded by all this death, the Mearcians stood calmly, tending to their needs. Many had wounds that required binding. Gathering all his warriors, Brand assessed their situation. Two of the men and one woman were judged to be unfit for further fighting, leaving him with twelve warriors.
“You’re not thinking of going back, captain?” asked Jerome, seeing a frown upon Brand’s face. The heathman was unhurt; he had been at the back during both fights. “You wanted three towers cleared.”
“Two should be enough,” Brand considered.
“We’re here, captain,” Leofric argued. “Let’s do what we came for.”
“Let’s finish them off!” Matthew declared forcefully. There was blood on his blade today, for the first time. The others nodded and murmured their assent. Leaving three behind, the remaining twelve and their captain continued along the Langstan.
Once more, the outlanders were not deceived by the Mearcians wearing red robes. Arrows meet them as soon as they were within range. This time, Brand commanded none to attempt scaling the tower. As before, the whiterobe with his axe was called to the front, making short work of the door.
First man through, Brand wielded his fabled blade with the skill of a knight. He did not aim to strike killing blows but rather push the outlanders back, allowing his soldiers entry. They flooded the room, tearing the outlanders’ ranks apart. Chaotic combat erupted everywhere as the outlanders on the roof rushed down the stairs, joining the skirmish.
Embroiled in combat, Brand kept several enemies at bay, to his left, right, and front. Behind him stood Jerome. Dropping his spear, the heathman drew his dagger suited for close combat, staring at Brand’s back. He stepped forward, preparing a strike.
Matthew pushed into the heathman. Where Jerome had stood, an outlander spear struck Matthew’s shield. Recovering, Jerome fell onto the outlander and thrust his dagger into his enemy, killing him. Quickly getting on his feet, he saw the remaining outlanders being pressed into a corner of the room. The Mearcians asserted themselves, closing ranks and taking control of the fight. Brand retreated a few steps, not taking part in the final slaughter. Their eyes met for a moment, and Brand nodded to Jerome in recognition, one soldier to another; sheathing his dagger, Jerome returned the gesture.
The battle done, the Mearcians gathered on the upper floor. “Captain,” one of them said, gaining Brand’s attention. She did not speak again but simply pointed to the ground and Leofric’s body. Brand walked over to kneel next to him. The wounds and blood upon the kingthane pronounced the truth.
“I saw him, captain. He went deep into their ranks, like he did at the other towers. There was no holding him back.”
“He fought like the best of us.”
“Tend to the living,” Brand declared. “See to your wounds. Jerome, go to the roof and keep watch.”
The soldiers dispersed to do as bid. Meanwhile, Brand and a few others found tools and went outside to dig a grave.
It took nearly an hour before the hole was deep enough to be a suitable grave; if too shallow, it invited wild animals to dig up the body and feed upon it. They lowered Leofric gently down along with not only his, but every weapon taken from the outlanders. As a final gesture, Brand tore away his own tattered, red-robed uniform. Seeing this, his followers did the same until all stood as Mearcians and none in stolen garments.
“Here lies Leofric,” Brand spoke. “He was mighty in battle, mighty in spirit. Strong of arm, strong of arms. Disdain he held for dread, contempt he had for cowardice.” There was a brief silence before Brand spoke again. “He left comfort and coin to follow oath and honour. From the hills of Heohlond to the heaths of Hæthiod, he fought beside me. In Mearc and Reach, he stood by me. While I draw breath, his name shall rest upon my heart.” Brand finished by placing his fist upon his chest, and the others mirrored his salute.
The whiterobe in their company stepped forward. “Sleep, Leofric of Middanhal. The raven has come for you. Your spirit shall soar with the eagle until the Sapphire City beckons.” He pulled out a raven feather and threw it into the grave. “Let none disturb your rest. Under the eyes of the dragon, the raven, the bull, the horse, the bear, the hart, and the eagle, this will be.”
“This will be.”
With the burial done, the Mearcians began their march back to camp. It was late in the day, and it would be night before they reached home.
“I owe you thanks,” Jerome said to Matthew, falling into pace next to the boy. “You saved me back there.”
“It’s fine,” Matthew replied with a beaming smile. “We fight together. We’re all the captain’s men.”
“That we are,” Jerome muttered.
“What a speech! For Leofric, I mean.”
“It was quite something.”
Matthew stared ahead at the object of his praise. “I’d be lucky to have him say such words about me.”
“Wouldn’t we all.”