What is Written
More than a month after his arrival in Rund, Godfrey sat enjoying food and drink at one of its many taverns. Manzik’s room had long since been reclaimed by the shahrban’s offices and delegated to another, more faithful servant, leaving Godfrey homeless. Since then, he had drifted from place to place, avoiding the shadow warriors and blackboots pursuing his trail.
Surprise filled his face as he looked up to see not one, but two blackboots approach his table. They were dressed in the garbs of their trade, which meant everyone else looked and kept away.
“Arman,” Godfrey exclaimed, standing up. They quickly clasped hands and took seats. “Well, we can’t meet here again,” he remarked, looking around at the other patrons, who did everything to avoid meeting his gaze.
“There was not time to be inconspicuous,” Arman explained. “I just arrived this morning.”
“What is amiss?”
“I have been sent by Jenaab Arash to coordinate an attack against the drylanders raiding our patrols,” Arman said.
“I have done my best to make the sasab delay,” Kamran inserted. “But with these news, the fravashi will not wait any longer.”
“There are rumours that the drylanders are led by a Blade of Ruin,” Arman added. “In the hands of the bloodline born to Sigvard, no less. The fravashi claim certainty of this, and they have been restless ever since.”
“They would know,” Godfrey conceded. “Very well. We have gained what we could. The drylanders must be warned. I have plans for their captain. He must survive.”
“Time is brief,” Arman warned. “The fravashi will be killing the drylanders north of the great stone and take possession of it. When the remaining drylanders attempt to flee back across the wall, they will be killed as well.”
“The fravashi from Rund will ride out to destroy their camp, send them fleeing north,” Godfrey realised. “Hammer against anvil.”
“Exactly.” Kamran nodded. “I have already been ordered to leave the city and scout ahead.”
“Javed, if this son of Sigvard is so important to our plans, he must be warned now,” Arman urged.
“Yes. I will leave at earliest opportunity.”
“That will be too late,” Kamran declared. “It will have to be me.”
“Kamran,” Godfrey protested. “Don’t be a fool. It is far too risky to send you.”
“It’s the only way. I already have orders to leave the city, whereas every guard in Rund is searching for you.”
“I’ll find a way,” Godfrey mumbled.
“I am sure you will. Tonight, when it is dark, and you can sneak across the wall. That is many hours wasted that could make the difference,” Kamran pointed out. “I can leave through the gate in this very moment, and none will question me.”
“They will kill you on sight,” Godfrey argued.
“Javed, he’s right,” Arman interceded. “This is greater than any one of us. We have all been prepared to die since the day you lead us to the light.”
Godfrey bit down on his lip. “Very well. Go quickly. I shall follow when I can.”
Kamran rose to his feet. “Until the morrow comes.” With those words, he disappeared.
“I must go as well,” Arman declared. “They will expect me to follow the soldiers when they move out.”
“Of course. Fate willing, we meet again soon.”
“Until the morrow comes.”
Being inside hostile lands, the Mearcians kept a strong watch surrounding their camp. Their patrols were numerous, although each consisted only of two warriors, as injuries and deaths had made its toll on Brand’s fighting force. One such pair leisurely made its way through the hills, enjoying the gentle weather and casual conversation.
“… only one card left, and only a thane will win the game for me.”
“You told me this story yesterday.”
“Yes! Twice, you halfwit.”
“Well, it’s a good story.” The soldier cleared his throat. “So there I was, one card left, and I needed to draw a thane.”
“Well met, men of the Mearc,” a voice called out to them in Nordspeech.
“Himil’s balls!” The pair turned abruptly to see a blackboot calmly staring at them. They lowered their spears immediately.
“I wish to surrender.”
The Mearcians exchanged looks. “What does that mean?”
“Please, take my weapons and lead me to your camp.”
“This can’t be right.”
“I assure you,” Kamran said patiently, “if I wished you harm, I would simply have ambushed you. On the contrary, I wish to warn you of impending danger.”
“I don’t trust him. We should kill him.”
“I can also hear and understand you,” Kamran pointed out.
“This ain’t right,” repeated the other soldier. “Outlanders aren’t supposed to talk, they’re supposed to die.”
“Might I suggest you take me to your leader, should you be uncertain how to proceed?”
The pair looked at each other again. “No tricks out of you. Hand over your weapons!”
“As you command.” Kamran unbuckled his belt and hung it upon one of the spears pointed at him. “Shall we proceed? I believe your camp is in that direction.”
“This is all kinds of wrong,” one of the Mearcians muttered as they set off.
Everything was peaceful in the Mearcian camp. Nearly one third of the inhabitants were gone; a score had been sent north to ambush a group of outlanders, and others were spread across the area on patrols or as sentries. The remainder busied themselves with the usual chores, fetching water, preparing food, mending clothes, and so forth.
Serenity was shattered when a blackboot entered the camp, flanked by two warriors. He carried no weapons, but his hands were not tied either, and his demeanour made him seem at ease. From all sides, the Mearcians moved towards the outlander, many of them with drawn weapons.
“What in Hel’s name are you doing?” came a roaring voice. With fury on his face, Glaukos stalked towards the pair and their prisoner. A blade was already in his hand.
“He surrendered, milord,” they explained.
“And you morons brought him here?”
“What else to do?”
“Anything but give him the location of our camp,” Glaukos yelled. He scowled at Kamran. “We will have to kill him as soon as we are done interrogating him. We cannot take any risk he escapes.”
“In fact, I should seek to speak with your commander,” Kamran interjected.
“Holy Hel, it speaks,” Glaukos exclaimed. “You must consider me a fool if you think I will let you within a hundred feet of our captain.” He spat on Kamran. “But knowing you speak the true tongue makes this easier.” He raised his blade to place it against the blackboot’s cheek.
Unflinching, Kamran met his gaze. “I know you are not a fool, Glaukos of Tothmor. That is why you will let me speak to your commander.”
Glaukos’ mouth dropped open, and his blade fell down on Kamran’s shoulder. “You filthy bastard. How in Hel’s name do you know mine?”
“Glaukos, Queen’s Blade, leader of a resistance group until you were betrayed and failed,” the blackboot began to say. Glaukos’ fist punched him on the mouth, and he fell to the ground. “You were lured into an ambush,” Kamran continued, wiping away the blood from his split lip. “Led by a traitor, Hugh of Esmarch. You fought one of the fravashi. Outmatched and wounded, you fled into a tavern.”
“Go to Hel!” Glaukos yelled, but he stood still as if spellbound by Kamran’s words.
“You were bleeding. You hid in the cellar underneath the kitchen.”
“How do you know that?” The words came more like the snarl of a beast than the speech of a man.
“It was I who used the oil lamp to cover the scent of your blood from the fravashi,” Kamran recounted. “It was I who saved you.”
“Why?” Glaukos yelled. “Why?” he repeated with fury seeping from his voice. “It can’t be.”
“Javed teaches us that when we save a life, we save ourselves.” Still lying on his back, Kamran stared up at Glaukos. “I did not think your courage deserved death.”
“Milord, what do we do?” someone asked Glaukos. There was a ring of spectators, watching with bewilderment.
“I do not believe in gods, Glaukos, but I believe in fate. It is time you repay me by taking me to your commander,” Kamran stated calmly.
Glaukos let a deep breath; his empty hand trembled until he clenched it into a fist. “Pull him on his feet,” he commanded. “We will take him to the captain. But one false move and I will gut you like a fish, you hear?”
“That is reasonable,” Kamran assented as someone grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up to stand.
“On your way,” Glaukos growled, pushing the blackboot forward with a blade against his back.
Brand sat on a tree log in discussion with his aides when half the camp seemed to approach his position. Even stranger, a blackboot walked at the head of the procession.
“Glaukos, what is this?” he asked, seeing the warrior walking behind the prisoner.
“This – man surrendered to us,” Glaukos explained. “He wishes to talk to you.” He reached out to slap a hand down on Kamran’s shoulder. “That is close enough.”
Brand stood up. Behind him, a kingthane kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and eyes locked on the blackboot. “I admit I am curious. Does he speak our tongue?”
“I do,” Kamran confirmed. “You must be Lord Adalbrand, wielder of the Blade of Ruin.”
“In the hands of my warriors, all blades carry ruin,” Brand said with half a smile. “Speak up! What is your purpose? Are you alone?”
“I am, my lord. I have been sent by Javed. The one you call Godfrey, I believe,” he added.
An expression moved across Brand’s face. “Speak.”
“Your location is no longer secret. Forces are moving towards this camp in this very moment. The same is the case for your soldiers guarding the long stone,” Kamran declared. His words caused ripples through the listeners, and the open hostility on their faces changed into concern.
“He could be lying,” Glaukos pointed out.
“Both my presence and my news should indicate that neither your camp nor your movements are hidden. You must retreat at once before it is too late,” Kamran stated.
Brand stared at him and took a step closer.
“Milord,” came a warning from his thane.
“Describe Godfrey to me,” the captain demanded.
Kamran licked his lips. “He is – not young, but he does not look old. He does not have a beard. Maybe stubbles. His eyes are – dark, I think. You cannot look into his eyes for long.”
Brand’s own eyes lingered on the blackboot a moment longer. “I believe you,” he finally said, causing further tension in the crowd. He looked past Kamran at Glaukos. “Gather every horse and the kingthanes. We ride to the crossing.” Glaukos gave a nod and left immediately; nearby, Matthew grabbed his equipment with excited eyes. Turning his head, Brand looked at Doran. “Break camp. Once the patrols return, march for the Langstan. We will keep the crossing open for you. You have command in my absence.”
“Bring him along, but do not harm him,” Brand specified with a gesture towards the blackboot. “Our enemy is the Godking, not his people.” Hearing this, Kamran inclined his head slowly. After a moment, Brand reciprocated. Around them, the Mearcians broke into hectic activity.
Twenty warriors in disguise moved north of the Langstan, tracking an outlander patrol. Their prey had equal numbers, but the Mearcians were not concerned; the element of surprise and the ferocity of their leaders had proven decisive every time. Led by a kingthane, they marched quickly to reach their target.
When they finally did, the actual outlanders slowed down, turned, and waited. As the Mearcians approached, the imminent battle caused tense demeanours, and they gripped their weapons tight in anticipation. Reaching their enemies, they lowered spears and charged with the thane in the lead.
A warrior stepped forward among the outlanders; he wore a mask of steel. Instead of spear and shield, his weapons were only blades. He leapt forward, evading hostile weapons. The kingthane, unprepared for this, was cut down within moments.
With surprise turned against them, the Mearcians held out a moment longer, clashing against the outlanders. Another two fell to the shadow warrior by precise strikes, and another two. Finding themselves in a hopeless situation and outnumbered, the Mearcians dropped weapons and fled.
Rather than pursue, the outlanders took out their bows and let arrows take flight. Several of the Mearcians tumbled to the ground, never to rise again.
Once they were beyond range of the archers, the shadow gave a quick order, and the outlanders formed a column, taking up pursuit.
Gasping for breath, seven survivors finally stopped their frantic escape. They had placed enough distance between themselves and the outlanders that for now, the latter were not in sight. Most of them collapsed onto the ground, breathing with greed.
“What was that – thing?” asked someone with spare breath.
“Some manner of fell creature,” mumbled Jerome. He stood bent over, as exhausted as any other.
“More importantly, what do we do now?” asked another.
“Go west,” came the suggestion. “They won’t pursue far.”
“I can’t believe I’m about to say this,” Jerome muttered. He straightened up to look at the others. “We have to go south.”
“South? They’ll catch up to us!”
“That creature’s presence wasn’t a coincidence,” Jerome pointed out, still out of breath. “They’ll be taking the Langstan, probably the camp, too. We have to warn them.”
“If they’re headed for the wall, we’ll die if we go there as well.”
“Our people will die if we don’t,” Jerome countered. “Enough talk. Let’s go!”
He turned south and began to move again. Inspired or shamed by his example, the others followed suit. In the far distance, they could see the towers of the Langstan beckoning.
An hour later, seven stragglers reached the crossing of the Langstan. They were met by five Mearcians keeping watch.
“What happened, brothers?” they called out in shock upon seeing the ragged band.
“They’ve figured us out,” someone replied. “They had this – this beast with them in the shape of a man. He tore through us like cattle.”
“Rest now,” a guard suggested while others brought water for them to drink. “You’re safe.”
“We’re not,” Jerome declared in between sharp breaths. “I’ll bet my last copper they’re coming here to keep us trapped. We must warn the camp.”
“He’s right. The captain should know what happened.”
“I’ll go.” One of the watchers placed his shield and spear against the parapet, turned south, and ran down the ramp towards the hills.
“The rest of us should prepare. We need weapons,” Jerome pointed out. He had only his short sword by his side; the same was the case for the other survivors. One of them picked up the spear and shield left behind by the runner.
“We have a few more spears inside the tower and a bow. Any of you an archer?” asked a sentinel.
“I’ll take that.”
“Get to the top of the tower. You’ll have better –”
“They’re here! Arrows!”
The Mearcians scattered. Those with shields quickly raised them; the rest hid behind crenellations or ran inside the tower.
“They’re coming!” someone roared. “Formation!”
Because of the ramp, the outlanders had direct access to the wall. The Mearcians had no choice but to stand side by side in the open, preparing themselves for the charge. Arrows flew both ways; one of the attackers fell as did one of the defenders, caught without shield. The remaining outlanders stormed up the ramp, led by the shadow warrior.
He sought out one of the poorly armed Mearcians. Instantly, he was up close, stabbing his victim. A spear came against him, striking into his leg. Snarling, the shadow grabbed the shaft of the spear and pushed it from his wound. With haste, the shadow pulled the spear towards himself, bringing its wielder within range of his long dagger that found another victim.
The line of defenders broke. In the chaos that ensued, the shadow warrior excelled. Unhindered by his wound, he moved and lashed out with speed and precision.
Seeing those yellow eyes fixed on him, Jerome raised his sword; in response, the shadow stalked towards him on the wall. Witnessing death approach him, Jerome staggered backwards; his blade hung low, anticipating defeat.
A horse came thundering up the ramp, throwing the shadow aside. Nine more followed as Brand and his retinue arrived to the fight. The captain impaled an outlander with his spear; the force made the shaft break, and he threw it aside, drawing his sword.
Sneering, the shadow rose to his feet. His sight set on Brand with blade in hand. With a leap, the shadow tumbled forward, cutting the forelegs of Brand’s mount and diving away. The horse reared in pain and fell to the ground, trapping its rider underneath.
The shadow warrior readied his blades and leapt forward once more. Before he could strike down, Matthew appeared at his master’s side, raising his shield in defence. Deftly, the shadow struck below Matthew’s guard. Surprise filled the boy’s face, and he stumbled backwards.
Underneath the horse, Brand struggled to free himself. As he finally managed to pull his legs out, the shadow was upon him. His knife came against Brand’s stomach in a blow promising an agonising death. Pushing his feet against the dead horse, Brand slid backwards on the ground, and the knife struck into his thigh instead.
With a grimace born of pain, Brand used his other leg to kick the shadow in the chest, throwing him back. Finally free, he got on his feet, raising the sword of sea-steel.
“Wrath, rage, storm, and song,” the creature spoke in Adalspeech; his voice came distorted underneath his steel mask. “Death awaits!”
Despite his previous injuries, the shadow seemed unhindered. He launched a fierce assault against Brand with both his blades. In contrast, Brand had only his sword, and his movements were dulled by his wounded leg. As the fight raged around them, the Dragonheart was forced back, step by step, in a desperate defence.
From the edge of this maelstrom of steel, Jerome kept back. He stared at Brand embroiled in the bitter duel. Once more, he found himself positioned behind Brand with a blade in hand.
Rushing forward, Jerome slashed his sword against the shadow’s arm. It caused no injury other than consternation as the shadow turned and struck back, but it was enough. The brief distraction allow Brand to thrust his sword into the side of his enemy. Eagerly, the sea-steel bit what common iron would not.
With a terrible shriek, the shadow staggered backwards. Dark liquid flowed from the wound as Brand pulled the sword back. His countenance hidden beneath his mask, the shadow turned and fled. As the outlanders witnessed this, their morale broke as well.
Their horses dead and their bodies exhausted, the Mearcians did not pursue. The small space upon the wall seemed to hold an impossible number of corpses, both beast and Man. Sword sliding from his hand, Brand fell to his knees seeing Matthew among them.
It would be a while before the remainder of their company joined the Mearcians at the wall. Making the most of the waiting, they prepared their fallen brethren for burial.
It would take too long to dig individual graves, but they could not bear to simply pile the corpses together in a single mass grave. Instead, the Mearcians decided to build a pyre. Furniture from the tower and anything else that would burn was brought down from the wall. They built the fire on the Mearcian side, deciding the ashes of their dead should fall on familiar soil. Some lamp oil ensured that the pyre would burn with strength.
They placed the dead side by side onto the fuel; as the last, Brand laid Matthew down gently. The boy wore his Order colours; it was the same surcoat he had donned years ago when first conscripted, no doubt having lied about his age. He had worn it at Lake Myr, across the Weolcans, in every battle by Brand’s side, and finally in the Reach. Now its journey ended as his had done.
Brand’s face was devoid of expression; he spoke not a word, and none dared speak to him. Instead, their work done, the Mearcians settled onto the wall, keeping watch; some looked north should the outlanders return, others looked south in anticipation of their brethren arriving from camp.
When the latter happened, they were greeted by a sombre mood and the sight of a battlefield. Lengthy explanations were unnecessary; their journey into the Reach had been a challenge to the Godking, and a response was to be expected. Having judged Kamran’s words to be true, Brand gave the brief command to let him be freed. With a silent gesture of respect, the blackboot left in peace and in haste.
Their company assembled, the Mearcians could begin the funeral. They gathered in a circle around the pyre with all eyes on Brand. “Wigstan,” he began to say. “Kevan. Jason. Morgan. Ciara. Brogan. Ryan. Hrodgar. Damon. Sinéad.” He took a breath. “Matthew. Your names – your names are written on my heart. All of them.” He placed his hand on his chest.
Next to him, Brother Caradoc stepped forward to finish the rites. Soon, the pyre burned. Brand kept his gaze upon Matthew’s face as the fire erased every facial feature once so familiar. Around the circle, the others paid tribute in their own manner. Some prayed, some wept; some gave their own sacrifice to the flames.
It did not last long; knowing that the smoke would attract unwanted attention, the Mearcians did not linger. Keeping to the shadow of the Langstan, they marched west.