The Road to War
In the heart of southern Adalrik lay Lake Myr. As a great reservoir connected to the river Sureste, it allowed for bountiful farmlands. The abundance of water also made it an obvious campsite for when the Order or other armies mustered in times of war. With troops being drawn from across the realm along with Ealond to the west and Korndale to the south, the lake once again proved to be a natural place to assemble.
Due to this, a thousand footmen and fifty knights had made camp on the northern shore, in the gap between the hills that separated central Adalrik from the eastern part. They had marched from Middanhal to fight in Hæthiod, same as the Order army already present had done so three years ago. Athelstan held command, which was another similarity, though that had ended with the House of Isarn rebelling and the knight turning on his own men. If any held grievance due to this, they kept it to themselves, but Fionn, the first lieutenant, kept close to Athelstan at all waking hours.
As always, the captain had his tent in one part of the Order’s camp while the first lieutenant had his in the other. For that reason, on the next day, Fionn crossed the enclosure to join Athelstan in the latter’s dwelling. He entered to find Eumund already present.
"Sir Fionn," Athelstan greeted him. "I have bid Sir Eumund join us. He has shown himself a capable leader, and I would rely on him as a second lieutenant, should battle take place."
The highlander barely gave the other knight a glance. "We have all had cause to hone our skills of late," he remarked gruffly.
"Quite." Athelstan cleared his throat and gestured towards the map of Adalmearc, lying on a small table. "The outlanders are expected to reach Ingmond any day now. I have sent word for the Order army to retreat beyond the Sureste. If we hold the western bank, that will hamper their ability to encircle Inghold itself."
"While we may harass them in skirmishes and minor sorties before retreating back across the river," Eumund added, nodding. "And if they seek to cross the river themselves, they will pay for it."
"I suppose that is as good a plan as any," Fionn acknowledged. "When do we march?"
"We wait for now. Reinforcements from the duke of Belvoir along with more supplies should be on their way," Athelstan explained.
"We are not much good here if the fighting is at the river," Fionn argued. "How long will we wait for a bunch of rivermen?"
"All available provisions in Ingmond have been brought inside Inghold in anticipation of the siege," Athelstan pointed out. "If we leave now, we add another thousand men to feed without bringing the supplies to do so."
"The army already holds the western bank," Eumund added. "Should the enemy advance, they can hold it for a while."
Fionn looked from one son of Isarn to another. "We better hope so. If that is all." He gave a curt nod and left.
"I am not one to stress courtesy, but even I find his manners lacking," Eumund said, taking a seat. "He should not forget who commands this army."
Athelstan bent over the table, moving chess pieces around the map to show troop locations. "He defended the Citadel against your father’s assault. It must be expected he bears resentment. As long as he obeys his orders when the time comes, I will not press the matter."
Eumund drummed his fingers against the sheath of his sword. "We are here now, fighting the same enemy as he is. You would think he might appreciate the realities of war."
"Give it time," Athelstan mumbled, moving the pieces around. "There is nothing like victory to make people change their tune."
"Considering the numbers we face, is victory even a possibility? What can we do but delay?"
"Nothing," the captain admitted, "but delay will be its own victory. Our king is gathering forces every day. And defending the Sureste may buy us weeks or even months."
"I suppose." Eumund ceased his restless hand movement. "Uncle, did we make the right choice?"
Athelstan raised his head to look at him. "Of course. The strife within the realm would have left us defenceless against this threat from the Reach."
"We betrayed my father," Eumund considered. "At least when we broke our oath to the Order, we could claim that loyalty to blood had greater weight. Now we have betrayed both oath and blood."
"And that will always weigh on me," his uncle admitted. "But I would have felt greater guilt if the civil war continued."
"But now we serve a king whom I suspect has no cordial feelings towards us," Eumund said. "He could not wait to send us into battle."
"He has shown us honour by giving me command, Eumund, thereby making great strides to put past enmity between us all, North and South," the elder knight claimed.
"I only hope that honour does not lead to your death," his younger counterpart replied. "I have already lost one father."
Athelstan stood in silence. When he spoke, his words came slowly, but emphatic. "You will not. I promise you that."
Eumund nodded curtly, rose, and left the tent.
"Sir Fionn!" The name was called by a frantic voice. The knight opened his eyes to look towards the opening of his tent; dawn had yet to arrive. The soldier calling for him stuck his head inside. "Sir Athelstan bids you hurry to join him."
The knight tumbled out of his blankets to grab his sword belt. "Are we under attack?"
"No, sir, but the captain has given the order to break camp."
The soldier disappeared. Cursing, Fionn strapped his belt around him and rushed outside. He found a camp hectic with activity; everywhere, tents were being pulled down. Striding through camp, he found Athelstan barking orders.
"What is amiss?" Fionn shouted over the noise.
"A messenger just arrived," Athelstan replied, lowering his voice as the other knight reached him. "He rode through the night from the Order army. The outlanders are on the western bank of the Sureste."
"How in Hel’s name is that possible?"
"They crossed up north and swept down," came the answer. "They have outmanoeuvred us. Instead of laying siege to Inghold, they are marching straight past, pursuing our forces."
"But the last reports said they were still in Hæthiod!" Fionn yelled.
"Clearly, their knowledge of our movements far exceeds what we know of theirs," Athelstan remarked. "Hurry up, man!" he continued, shouting at a soldier loading sacks onto a cart. "Get your horse saddled," he added at Fionn. "I want every knight riding ahead. We need to get there before it comes to battle."
"Aye, captain," the highlander knight replied, hurrying away.