Seal and Seat
The Mearcians continued their march until nightfall. Despite the miles they had traversed, the Langstan remained empty; the Order only maintained control further west. Using its ancient stonework for their own purpose, they erected primitive tents made from spears and cloak placed against the wall.
In the middle, Brand held council. He sat on a tree stump, occasionally rubbing his leg; it had been a long march with an injured thigh. His lieutenants sat around him on fallen logs. All of them were quiet, looking at their captain.
“What happens now, milord?” Geberic finally asked.
When Brand did not reply, others did. “We still have most of our fighting force,” Glaukos pointed out. “We can still harass the outlanders on this side of the wall.”
“They will be expecting us,” Alaric countered. “Our only advantage was stealth and surprise. Both are lost.”
“What else are we to do? Go back to the Order camp and sit around, spear in hand?” Glaukos asked.
“We wanted to hurt the outlanders enough to challenge them on the field,” Doran mentioned. “Perhaps we should return to Sir William and assess the situation. Maybe the time is right to give battle.”
“See now, those are words worth hearing!” Glaukos assented.
“The knights still won’t fight,” Geberic argued. “We can’t fight a battle without them.”
“Enough,” Brand uttered; the others fell silent. “We have had a long and trying day. Sleep as you can. Decisions are for tomorrow.”
The others mumbled their acquiescence and left Brand alone, save for the thane keeping watch.
Scarcely had the others gone before Jerome approached, having watched the meeting from a distance. “May I speak with you, milord? In private.”
“Of course.” Brand nodded to his guard, who walked away. “What is it?”
Jerome shifted his weight from foot to foot. It took him a moment to phrase himself. “I’m probably the only one who went with you for selfish reasons,” he finally said.
“I don’t think that can be said of anyone.”
“It’s true. I was a mercenary, milord, fighting for silver far from home. I’m a heathman, but I didn’t think twice about the war in Hæthiod. I didn’t care.”
“Something changed, I surmise.”
“It took longer than you’d think, milord. Maybe it was underway for a while, but today, seeing that evil creature,” Jerome explained. “I finally understood. This war isn’t about gold or land. It’s – bigger than anything else I’ve known. I’ve seen strange things in the deep South, but nothing like this. This war, it’s more important than me.”
“We all have our parts to play, Jerome. Every soldier with the courage to fight is important.”
“That’s not what I mean to say, milord. I need you to understand why I see things differently today than I did yesterday.”
Brand frowned. “Is something the matter?”
Jerome took a deep breath. “Lord Konstans of Vale offered me a purse of gold to ensure you never returned from the Reach, milord. Once he realises I have failed, he’ll send someone else. You need to be warned.”
Brand straightened his back and looked up to stare at Jerome. “I see.”
“I’d ask you didn’t tell the others, milord. Let me just take my things and leave. I don’t want them looking at me with contempt in their eyes,” Jerome asked, his voice thick.
“You will stay where you are,” Brand commanded him sternly. “As long as you are in my camp, Lord Konstans may assume you still intend to carry out your task.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Jerome admitted.
“Speak of this to none,” Brand continued. “But inform me immediately if anything catches your suspicion.”
“Good. Get some sleep. We will all need to be rested.”
“Yes, milord.” Jerome walked away with heavy breaths, leaving Brand to stare into the dark. Despite his own words, the captain found little sleep.
The following morning, Brand’s lieutenants gathered. None of them spoke; they simply stared at their haggard leader in anticipation.
“We will return to the Order camp,” Brand informed them. “Sir William can inform of us of the current situation and the effect our raids have had. Seven and Eighth willing, the outlanders will be sufficiently weakened to consider battle and besieging Lakon.”
“Very good, sir,” Geberic assented.
“We keep a course northwards for now even if it adds days to our journey. No need to risk discovery by patrols.”
“I will tell them to move out,” Doran declared. Brand gave him a nod and gathered his few things in preparation for the march. Around the camp, the others did likewise; given how light they travelled, it took only a brief while before they could form a column and set out.
“Does this feel strange to you?” Nicholas asked Quentin. “Like we’re running away.”
“It feels that way because it is that way,” Quentin retorted, walking by his side. “We were a hundred soldiers invading our enemy. It was always going to end with us in retreat.”
“I guess, but I feel like a dog with its tail between its leg.”
“We must have killed hundreds and hundreds of those scum,” Quentin pointed out. “And all in all, we lost maybe thirty of our number. You’re just feeling downtrodden because things went ill towards the end.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Besides, this is good for you. When we reach the camp, you can get a letter sent to Ellen.”
Nicholas seemed to regain some of his cheer. “That’s right. So she won’t forget me.”
“Because women tend to forget about the men they married within a year.”
“Actually, we’ve been away for a year and –”
“Gods, spare me,” Quentin exclaimed exasperated. “I’m never marrying if this is the result.”
“I don’t think you’re in much danger,” Nicholas remarked gently.
Due to their hasty departure, the band had few provisions. The surrounding land was far from lush and provided little opportunity for foraging, especially not in spring. Following brooks and streams to ensure freshwater was available, the group marched on despite the pangs of hunger. When it became too dark to march on, the soldiers were encouraged to seek rest at once; a sleeping man was not a starving man, for a while.
A few sentries remained alert, as did Brand. He did not seem to make much effort in pursuit of sleep either; he sat on a rock large enough to act as an uncomfortable seat. The cold wind made him pull his cloak around him, but it appeared to be mostly by reflex; inevitably, the cape would soon after slide down, leaving him exposed to the elements, starting the cycle anew.
“Captain.” One of the sentinels approached with another man in tow. “Your spy is back.”
Brand looked up to find Godfrey staring back. “I did not expect you.”
“That’s how it usually is with me. You received my warning, I take it.”
“The blackboot? We did.”
“What of him? Is he safe?”
Brand gave a vague nod. “We let him go unharmed.”
“That’s good.” Godfrey breathed easier. “We should speak. Alone.”
Brand looked over his shoulder; a thane sat up against a tree, struggling to stay awake that he might guard his captain. “Stay here,” Brand told him and rose up to follow Godfrey to the edge of camp. “Speak up.”
“Are you hurt? Your leg.”
“Nothing of importance.” The wound was nearly healed, causing only a slight limp.
“It was bound to happen. The blade by your side, the blood in your veins,” Godfrey muttered. “To the outlanders, these are omens both good and ill.”
“They are signs, memories of past defeats. Though some would see them as challenges of the Godking’s might. They think this means he will return. From his stronghold under the mountain, he will awaken to wage war.”
“Meanwhile, we are divided, fighting amongst ourselves,” Brand remarked with a sardonic smile. “I command less than seventy warriors. Not much of a challenge.”
“That can swiftly change. Even now, the Godking fears you enough to send his shadows against you. They will shed your blood and steal your blade.”
“Let them come. These shadows, I fought one of them upon the wall. This sword sent him into flight.” Brand rested his hand upon the hilt by his waist.
“Next time, they will not be so brazen. They will sneak into your camp. They are creatures of shadow, Brand, as the name says. You cannot hope to guard against them at all times.”
“What then? Am I to cower the rest of my days?” Brand asked bitterly.
“I have a better idea. You must leave for now. Our enemies will lose track of you until time is right for you to return.”
“Leave?” Brand exclaimed. “You must be mad. This war is far from done.”
“What can you accomplish here? You left the Order camp because your presence merely caused division. Until you are reinstated as a knight, there is little you may achieve.”
“And that is within your power? Having my honour and spurs restored to me?” Brand asked with derision.
“It is,” Godfrey claimed undisturbed. “But it will take time. Months. I must cross the Realms to forge new alliances and rekindle old friendships. Brand, if you trust me, I can deliver an army to you. An army to not only fight this war, but win it!”
Despite Godfrey’s forceful words, Brand seemed unmoved. “How do I explain to my people that we are abandoning the war? Where would we go?”
“I have already considered that,” Godfrey replied with a sly smile. “It requires a bit of an explanation.”
“Very well, go on.”
“Alcázar is planning war. What’s more, I believe their preparations are soon complete,” Godfrey stated.
“How certain are you?”
“Absolutely. I have seen their shipyards. They’re building a fleet to sail north and amassing mercenaries to use it.”
“That is grave news, but how does this matter? Do you intend for me to travel west and fight another war?”
“Not yet. I have built a network of spies in Alcázar, much as I have done in the Reach. Knowledge of the armies arrayed against us, their plans for invasion, this will be critical if the Realms are to survive.”
“I do not see how that pertains to us here and now.”
“I need someone to travel to Alcázar and retrieve the intelligence. Someone familiar with the city and language that he will not draw attention. You spent your youth in Alcázar, did you not?”
“You cannot be serious! I am no spy,” Brand said with indignation.
“For all their bad reputation, spies are useful,” Godfrey remarked dryly. “You had no qualms about using my information. Information, I might add, which gave you advance warning just a few days ago.”
“Be that as it may, I am a commander, a warrior. My place is on the battlefield. You are the spy,” Brand pointed out. “This is a task for you.”
“Yes, but I already have a task. I must patch the Order together that we stand a chance against all we face,” Godfrey retorted, his voice gaining an edge. “I have wheels in motion and many matters requiring my attention. Do you have a plan to accomplish this?”
Brand stared at him with anger flickering across his face. “If I did, I would not be in the wilderness with only seventy warriors at my call.”
“Then you should trust me. Have I not proven true to my word each and every time in the past?”
Brand’s jaw was clenched, but his reply came with softening voice. “You have.”
“None of this is coincidence. Alcázar will strike while our attention is in the east, causing a severe blow. Once the western realms are burning with war, we will be too weak to resist the Godking. An alliance born in Hel has been forged between the two,” Godfrey explained patiently. “I am sure of it.”
Brand glanced around before his eyes settled on his companion again. “I cannot leave my people. They will think I have abandoned them. What would I even tell them?”
“That you have a task only you can fulfil, on your own. They had enough faith in you to follow you into the Reach,” Godfrey pointed out. “They will wait for your return.”
Brand shook his head. “A captain does not simply walk away, leaving his soldiers behind. You must find someone else.”
“There are none who can play the part convincingly – your youth spent in Alcázar makes you perfect for this. Besides, this solves our other issue of your safety. The shadows will not know to pursue you this far.”
“Because spying is such a safe trade,” Brand remarked.
“This will be. You need only enter the city and meet my reeve. I will arrange for your passage to and fro. It will take a few months, during which you will be gone from all hostile eyes. When you return, I will have you commanding the Order’s armies once more, I promise you.” Godfrey kept his piercing eyes on Brand.
Turning away, Brand’s gaze found Jerome sleeping by the edge of camp. “What use will this information be? We have no armies in western Adalmearc.”
“It will be passed to my associate in Thusund. If the islanders and the Order know what they face, gods willing, they will stop Alcázar’s fleet from even entering Drake Run.”
“How certain are you that Alcázar plans war against us specifically?” Brand asked hesitantly. “Their aim could be the other South Cities.”
“Brand, we can argue until dawn. I can inform you of every bit of knowledge I have assembled with pain-staking care. In the end, it all relies upon the same question. Do you trust me to do what I ask of you?”
Exhaling slowly, Brand nodded. “I do. But I cannot bear the thought of leaving my people behind. How can I meet their eyes when I tell them this?”
“You were born with strong will for a reason, Brand. You have the strength to bear such burdens. Besides, travelling alone to undertake a task that will ensure victory,” Godfrey declared, “that reminds me of Sigvard himself.”
“You can spare me your bait,” Brand retorted, but his voice carried no sting. “I have already accepted.”
“Sorry. Force of habit,” Godfrey smiled. His voice and expression became grave. “I know great sacrifices are asked of you. I wish I could promise you they will be rewarded, but the fates do not weave justice. Good men suffer, evil men prosper.”
“Your ability to motivate people is without equal.”
“Sorry. Again.” The smile returned to Godfrey. “I will travel a bit of the distance with you and ensure you have all needed instructions. When we meet again, most likely in Portesur or Herbergja, you will be a knight once more.”
“Very well.” Brand looked up at the night sky. “I will try to rest while time permits.”
“A wise decision.”
When morning came, Brand did not give the order to break camp as yesterday. Instead, he bade his lieutenants assemble everyone. Stepping onto a rock to make himself visible to all, Brand let his eyes sweep across the men and women gathered. Their expressions were tired, their clothing dirty, but when he spoke, he had their full attention.
“We have come far,” he began. “Some of you have been with me since before we crossed the Weolcans.” A few, including a pair of Hæthian archers, responded with noise. “Some of you fought at Bradon or Cudrican with me. Some of you were at Tothmor or Polisals.” A few more joined in. “Some of you chose exile over dishonour and went to Heohlond with me.” The kingthanes gave weary cheers. “Some of you left Heohlond to follow bonds of blood.” The highlanders raised their hands in greeting. “Regardless of when you joined this band, you all went into the Reach with me.” All of them responded upon hearing this.
“We marched where none of our people has dared to set foot. We taught the enemy fear,” Brand impressed upon them. “One day, they shall sing of the hundred heroes,” he proclaimed, raising his voice. “And none shall sing your praises louder than I will. That is my solemn promise to you. All of your names are sealed upon my heart, and you shall be seated at my table. Always.” The soldiers cheered again with what strength they could muster.
“Now comes the part I wish I never had to say.” Worried looks were exchanged. “While all of you must return to the Order camp, I cannot follow.” Disbelief overcame the crowd.
Brand raised his hands to gain silence. “My presence in the camp would only cause disruption. But another task lies before me, and it cannot be done with strength of arms. I swear to you, I shall return. One day, I shall walk amongst you again. This I swear, by the Seven and Eighth, I swear it. But for now, I must ask you all to trust me as you did when you followed me into the Reach.” Murmur could be heard, especially among Brand’s closest followers and lieutenants. Several of them glanced at Godfrey.
“Where are you going?” yelled one of the highlanders.
“I cannot say. I can only ask that you keep faith in my return.”
“I have faith, captain,” someone declared. It was Jerome. He glanced around as if to challenge any to gainsay him.
“What are you going to do?”
“I cannot say that either.”
“I’ll wait, captain. You’ve never led us astray before.”
“Aye, I will as well.”
Brand smiled without joy. “I know you will. Never have I known warriors of such heart. Never shall I feel alone again, knowing you await me.” His expression did not seem to agree with his words. “Sir William will welcome your hardy company and treat you well for my sake. Until I return.”
“Until you return!” several shouted as Brand stepped down.
He turned to face his lieutenants, addressing Doran. “Keep the company together in my absence. Write to my sister in Middanhal for coin. That will help you see to their needs.”
“Good. Break camp. You should be underway soon.”
“As you say, captain.” Doran saluted Brand and hurried away, organising the march.
Before Brand could say anything to the others, Geberic spoke up. “It’s that spy, isn’t it?” He looked towards Godfrey. “He’s given you some information that you can’t ignore, and now you’re chasing off.”
“There are many considerations in play,” Brand said curtly. “I will meet you all in the Order camp.”
“Not me,” Geberic replied, quickly adding, “I’m going with you.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but your presence would only endanger me at my destination. I must be alone.”
“Then we will follow you as long as we can,” Glaukos interjected. “I am a King’s Blade. I need a king to fight for. Besides, I have had my fill of killing outlanders for the time being.”
Alaric nodded towards him. “As he said.”
Behind them, Gwen pressed forward. “I didn’t come here to fight a war. I came here to stay by your side. I’m going the same way as you.”
“You cannot follow me all the way,” Brand told them. Seeing them all stare at him, he continued. “I suppose I will not mind the company some of the way.” They grinned.
“We should leave,” Godfrey told him quietly, having approached.
Brand gave a nod. “Gather your things.”
They did so with speed; moments later, they were ready to leave. While the remainder of the company prepared to march north, Brand set a course westwards. As he took the first step, those left behind beat their fists against their chests in a last salute. “Dragonheart. Dragonheart. Dragonheart.” Brand turned to send them a final look; with a smile leaning towards sorrow, he set on his path once more, followed by five others.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.