Black Blades and White Walls
Surcoats with red hawks and black swords stalked each other across the open landscape north of Middanhal. With winter’s end, the armies of Isarn and their allies had left the jarldom and marched south-east once more. For weeks, the northerners had clashed with mercenaries in the employ of Vale. The latter, unwilling to give battle against an army under Athelstan’s command, had instead spread out their forces, engaging into minor skirmishes and always swiftly retreating. This had slowed the advance of Isarn’s armies; with their scouts and vanguard always under risk of attack, they had to move more cautiously and in greater numbers.
Yet unwilling to face Isarn on the field, the Red Hawks could only delay their enemy, never defeat. Isenhart’s own kinsmen began leading patrols, delighting in the encounters with Vale’s mercenaries. Not only Athelstan himself took the field, but also other renowned wolves of Isarn, among them the jarl’s son Eumund and his cousin Athelbold with his own son, Athelgar.
The final defence took part just north of Middanhal before the last Red Hawks had to retreat into the city. As they did so, they abandoned northern Adalrik to the rebels, including Theodstan, now severed from its allies in the south.
Some miles north of Middanhal, Isarn made camp. Given this could still be considered contested land, they did so with great caution, posting countless sentinels and deploying many scouts; even if Vale’s forces had been sent on the retreat, the capital was certain to be filled with enemy troops, and vigilance was paramount.
Time did not permit palisades to be erected before darkness would fall, and instead, Athelstan had commanded trenches to be dug interspersed with spikes. This would protect against cavalry charges and break up enemy infantry formations, should any nightly assaults be attempted. Eumund, trained by the Order same as his uncle, walked the outskirts to inspect with stern eyes for any vulnerabilities. He leapt into the trenches, ensuring they had sufficient depth; if not, he scolded the men for their hasty work and commanded them to continue digging. He examined the spikes, at times correcting their angle or how deep they sat in the ground. If any seemed to hesitate or make quiet grumblings, the former knight was swift to chastise them with threats of the lash; he never needed to repeat himself.
“Cousin!” The call came from Athelgar. “Your father wants us to attend him.”
“I am nearly done,” Eumund replied, glancing ahead at the primitive defences yet to be surveyed. “Darkness will soon fall.”
“If you are willing to suffer your father’s displeasure, by all means, go ahead,” his kinsman said. “As for me, I do not intend to delay.” With another look ahead and dissatisfaction on his face, Eumund turned and walked swiftly to catch up to Athelgar. “I do not see your concern, in any case,” the latter spoke again. “We have not seen sign of Vale or his southern swords for miles.”
“We may be safe tonight, but if we are to remain camped here, we must tighten our defences. With Vale on one hand and Theodstan on the other, we are exposed.”
“If that is the case, you may continue flogging the men with your tongue tomorrow,” Athelgar pointed out.
“Wait, why would we remain in this place? Surely, we must be moving east to strike at Theodstan. I am certain that will be my father’s counsel. Same with Athelstan.”
Eumund gave his kinsman a quick look. “It is not for them to decide.”
“But what could be gained –”
“Save it for the council,” the jarl’s son suggested, and they walked onwards in silence.
In Isenhart’s tent, his closest relatives had gathered; all those who served as commanders of his armies and gave counsel when called upon. With the enemy pushed back to Middanhal, Isarn’s first goal had been achieved; as spring and the next season for campaigning arrived, his jarldom and the lands of his allies were safe.
As Eumund and Athelgar entered, the jarl gave a quick grunt. “Should anyone feel as if we have achieved anything, let me remind you of this,” Isenhart spoke with his usual anger lurking in his eyes. “By pushing Vale back to Middanhal, we have only restored control of our own lands. We have yet to put the hurt on our enemy.”
“We are in the position to do so now,” Athelstan remarked.
“After far too long a delay,” the jarl spoke with a menacing voice. “No more delays. We begin the siege of Middanhal immediately.”
Everyone looked at Isenhart with surprise. “That is beyond us,” Athelbold finally declared while his son scoffed behind him before quickly avoiding Isenhart’s gaze.
“He is right,” Athelstan assented. “We cannot starve the city out, and any direct assault is doomed to fail.”
“You cowards invite defeat by declaring it!” the jarl sneered. “If you value bearing the name Isarn, you will choose your next words carefully.”
“Father,” Eumund said with a slow voice. “It is our duty to counsel you.”
“Yet all your counsel has yet to win me this war.”
“Nor has it lost you this war,” his brother pointed out. “Our advance has made Theodstan vulnerable, and we might –”
“Theodstan!” Isenhart spat out. “Am I to spend the year besieging his mountain cave? Even if I take that forsaken rock, it will not bring me victory in this war!”
“It will force an ally of our enemy to switch sides,” Athelbold said, taking a step to stand next to Athelstan. “With full control of northern Adalrik, we may even persuade the highlanders to join.”
“Empty words!” The jarl’s intense eyes stared at each of his kinsmen. “Those pathetic clans will never join. The siege begins tomorrow. Begone, all of you, and see to it!”
Everyone except for Isenhart swiftly left.
As it became night, Athelstan and Athelbold walked the camp. As they were highest in authority save the jarl himself, all hurried to get out of their way. Not that the pair of cousins seemed to notice; they moved with quick steps without paying much attention to their surroundings.
They reached a small tower that had been raised to serve as post for sentinels. At present, it was little more than a raised platform, but it did offer some seclusion. The two ascended up the ladder to find a soldier keeping watch. “Leave us,” Athelstan commanded. The warrior complied without hesitation.
“What are your thoughts?”
The jarl’s brother stared towards the south. The darkness hid the Weolcan mountains, but on a clear day, one might see as far as the white walls of Middanhal. “An assault will be a massacre. This is not open battle. There are no manoeuvres nor trickery that will get us past those defences. They know to expect us.”
Athelbold took a deep breath. “I agree. Forcing Theodstan to join us and promising the highlanders enough to do the same remains our only option.”
“That might give us a chance.” Athelstan ran his hand through his hair. “However fickle it might be.”
“How do we persuade him?”
“I do not know. If our preparations for the siege go poorly and drag out, his impatience may work in our favour. Marching on Theodstan instead might seem like a better prospect, promising immediate action rather than further waiting,” Athelstan speculated, looking at his cousin.
Athelbold nodded. “I will work on him bit by bit. Start by suggesting scouting into Theodstan’s territory, keeping us safe. Escalate to raiding parties and ensure he sees them as successful. Make him amenable to the idea of attacking Theodstan.”
“I will avoid the subject entirely. If we both bring it up, he will be suspicious.”
“We do it the same way we convinced him to hire the forester bowmen, only reverse,” Athelbold suggested. “This time, I will plant and grow the seed while you wait for him to ask you in council.”
“Athelstan.” He hesitated a moment. “What if even gaining both Theodstan and Heohlond will not be enough? What do we do if Middanhal cannot be taken? You know that he will never back down.”
The jarl’s brother turned his gaze southwards once more. “We will spend that coin when the time comes.”