No Other Place to Be
Two days later, Athelstan and the other knights reached the Order’s army on its hasty retreat through Ingmond. They arrived at night, finding a camp in disarray; the hurried march left no time for the usual discipline. Weariness could be seen on the face of every soldier, and fear subdued only by exhaustion haunted their words. Yet seeing the ride of fifty knights as they entered camp, moods and voices rose with the hope that aid had come.
"Find me Sir Ewind," Athelstan commanded even before dismounting his horse, and soldiers scattered in every direction to carry out the order.
"Our losses so far have been light, all things considered," Ewind told Athelstan, Fionn, and Eumund. The four knights stood together in the middle of the camp, pulling their cloaks together to shield against the harsh wind. "But they are hot on our heels. Our rearguard has been fighting every day for five days now, buying us time. How many reinforcements do you bring?"
"Not enough to give battle. Tell us everything you know from the start," Athelstan bade him.
"We retreated past the Sureste," Ewind related. "Set up camp and kept in close touch with Inghold, preparing the city for a siege while keeping watch. With barely any warning, three thousand outlanders came upon us from the north. Along with their cavalry, we had a hard time fending them off." The fresh cuts and nicks on the knight’s face added to his story. "We fought for two days, but while we were kept busy, their main army arrived and began crossing the river. Facing envelopment, I gave the order to retreat." He looked at the others with a heavy expression.
"You did right," Athelstan assured him. "What were your losses?"
"About five hundred dead or so. It has been hard to get an accurate count," Ewind admitted. "But at least half the remaining men have wounds, some worse than others."
"I would not have thought them so brazen," Fionn said. "They will be risking their supply lines, leaving Inghold in our hands."
"With their second army on the march, they can afford it, and they have put us on the back heel," Athelstan pointed out. "It is clear we must not underestimate our foe. He is determined and cunning."
"So what do we do?" asked Eumund. "If we keep retreating, they will keep harassing us."
Athelstan scratched the short beard on his cheek. "The land grows narrow between Lake Myr and the hills to the north. We have a thousand footmen that will reach us soon. Those will be the best terms for battle. We fight as long as we can, giving the impression our numbers are strong enough to hold. That should buy us time and opportunity for an orderly retreat."
"What of Belvoir? He has six thousand men marching towards this lake." Fionn threw his hand out, gesturing towards the water. "With those numbers, defending the gap, we will not just pretend to hold."
Athelstan frowned, looking sceptical. "I doubt he can reach us here in time, but if we are able to retreat, we may find another suitable battlefield further west and join forces with him."
Eumund took a deep breath, hesitating before he spoke. "It seems to me that our choice is either a harried retreat today, or fighting that we may have a slightly less harried retreat tomorrow. If those are our options, so be it. But we should not let the men know. Tell only of reinforcements coming."
"Agreed," Athelstan said.
"Staying here to fight with barely any hope seems harsh," Ewind weighed in; doubt lay across his face.
"That is our duty. The king needs time to gather troops. We must buy it for him," Athelstan declared.
"Aye," Fionn declared.
Eumund hesitated before looking at his uncle. "So be it."
Since they would not be continuing their hurried flight, Athelstan let the men rest for the remainder of the night; the closest thing to decent sleep that any of them had experienced in several days. With battle on the horizon, every small advantage mattered. To that end, the captain bid them all eat heartily rather than spare their provisions; they would need all their strength soon enough.
With the lake to the south and hills to the north, cavalry had a limited role to play. Instead, Athelstan bid his knights dismount and take position among the ranks, fortifying the footmen. The few hundred archers were placed in the hills along with spearmen to defend them. No troops were kept in reserve; the Order soldiers stood barely four lines deep.
They had barely moved into position before the enemy could be spotted. Few, at first. Scouts and skirmishers, the spearhead of the vanguard. Seeing closed ranks rather than retreating foes, the outlanders did not approach. They returned to their comrades, bearing news that the Mearcians stood ready to give battle. The back lines of the Order soldiers sat down on the grass, resting while time still permitted this. An hour after the scouts had been sighted, the outlanders returned.
They advanced. One row of spearmen in front protected the rest, taking out bows to send a barrage of arrows against the Mearcians. Large shields and heavy armour held. Witnessing little effect, close combat inevitably followed. In their red robes, the Anausa infantry stormed forward. Spears met spears, battle cries filled the air, and blood was spilt.
Fighting in the gap between lake and hills, the outlanders could not take advantage of their greater numbers. Instead, they continued to rain down arrows, aiming at the back lines. Bodies began to fill the ground, never to rise again.
Once both sides were heavily entrenched, Jenaab Sikandar made his next move and sent in his cavalry. Facing only footmen, the obvious choice would be to outflank the Mearcians. Two hundred riders, moving in a thin wedge, galloped southwest to reach the narrow strip of land between the Order lines and the lake. Another three hundred horsemen rode northwest, entering the hills that overlooked the battleground.
Sir Fionn held the southern flank. Seeing the cavalry thunder towards his position, he barked orders above the din of fighting. The back rows of his soldiers pulled away and rushed to fill the remaining gap. In the soft ground by the lakeshore, their boots began to sink. Between the terrain and the terror of battle, the Mearcians struggled to form ranks. What should be a forest of spears aimed at the advancing horsemen became a barren landscape.
Yet the terrain gave no favours to the outlanders either; the horses could not maintain their speed in the mire. In response, some of the cavalrymen pulled left, further into the lake to extend the outflanking manoeuvre. Disruption on both sides served neither, yet losing momentum pulled the fangs from the outlanders’ charge. Disjointed fighting erupted instead between Mearcians on foot and outlanders on horseback.
To the north, the outlander cavalry rode at a slower pace; the hilly terrain made it necessary, but it also let them spare their horses for a swift charge later. They moved in a wide circle, aiming to eventually circumvent the Mearcians entirely and make a devastating assault into their back lines.
Before they reached their goal, they met Sir Eumund’s forces sent into the hills earlier. Longbowmen protected by spearmen had kept out of sight, expecting this tactic. As the outlanders came riding over another ridge, they slammed straight into the Order soldiers. Arrows and spears butchered the horses, sending the cavalrymen tumbling to the ground. Completely caught out, Jenaab Rostam called a swift retreat rather than risk losing every remaining soldier.
Their task complete, Sir Eumund’s troops marched through the hills to join the main battle. Well positioned, the archers sent volleys against the outlanders fighting below. Yet the red-robed soldiers had numbers to spare; absorbing the losses, reinforcements moved in. Some supported their comrades already in the fray while others moved into the hills to fight the spears and bows. The bloodletting continued.
The hours passed. Despite inferior numbers, the Mearcians held. The outlanders had placed their hopes on a swift assault to overwhelm exhausted troops with low morale, underestimating their foe. Calling a retreat, the outlanders pulled back in orderly manner. A barrage of arrows warned the Order soldiers not to pursue, though it proved superfluous; the men of the Star watched their enemy retreat with relief on their faces and mumbled many prayers of gratitude.
Pulling back to their primitive camp, the Mearcians began tending to the wounded and replacing broken weapons by taking those of the dead; they also set a strong watch in case the outlanders should return.
Meanwhile, Athelstan met with his flank commanders. Despite holding the enemy back against expectations, despite what could be considered a victory, their faces looked grim.
"Our losses have been too heavy," Athelstan considered. "If we attempt a retreat now, they will fall upon us like wolves. The moment we abandon this gap, they will destroy us."
"We held them today," his nephew argued. "We may do so again."
"We cannot expect tomorrow to favour us," Athelstan admitted. "They sought a swift victory, which allowed us room to manoeuvre, but tomorrow they will be cautious. They will send a large number of infantry through the hills to outflank us. If they have timber, rafts on the lake will allow them to make landfall behind our lines. Just a few hundred men would wreak havoc."
"We could take position in the hills, all of us," Fionn suggested. "That will make up for their greater numbers."
"If so, they will simply ignore us," the captain pointed out. "They are only forced to give battle because we block their path, and we know them to be decisive. If we yield the road, they will march past us and threaten the rest of Adalrik."
"Cutting off Belvoir’s forces and any other reinforcements sent our way. Not to mention, we will be trapped between this army and the next one they have on the way," Eumund continued.
"Six thousand soldiers from Ealond marching towards here. The thousand men we brought, which should arrive tomorrow. And most likely, another one or two thousand leaving Middanhal to reinforce us further." Athelstan exhaled deeply, running a hand through his hair. "If we flee, they might kill, capture, or prevent nearly ten thousand soldiers from defending Middanhal, should the fates be cruel. And that excludes this army."
"So what do we do?" asked Eumund.
The two lieutenants looked at their captain. "I will send a messenger warning the duke of Belvoir to hurry north. Not to mention, we have perhaps two thousand wounded here, who in time can fight again," Athelstan considered. "There is only one choice. We dispatch the wounded to leave now and march through the night. Those of us still ready for battle, including our reinforcements arriving tomorrow, must stay and hold another day. Gods willing, that will buy enough time before the outlanders can pour into Adalrik."
Silence lingered between the three men, only disturbed by screams of agony from across the camp; some wounds killed slowly. "As you command," Eumund finally said.
"Aye," Fionn assented. "Just one more day of fighting. We can do that."
"But the retreat of the wounded, coordinating with Belvoir’s forces, and organising their escape," Eumund spoke again. "Every moment counts, and every soldier saved might turn the war later on. A task of such importance must be overseen by our best captain." He stared at his uncle.
"No." Athelstan shook his head. "I was given command of this army. I will stay behind."
"Sir Fionn, let me speak alone with our captain."
"I will tell the wounded to prepare for march," the highlander muttered and left.
"Eumund, do not even try."
"You are being a fool." The young knight’s expression mirrored his harsh words. "The battle has already been decided. Nothing remains but to fight it. Your presence here would not make a difference."
"As captain, I am not abandoning my army. You will lead the retreat."
"Listen," Eumund hissed between gritted teeth. "Tactical movements will not matter tomorrow. We have no soldiers left to execute them. We can do nothing but fight, and I wield a blade as well as you."
"In which case, it makes no difference if I wield it or you." Pointedly, Athelstan looked past his nephew. "I will stay."
"No!" The outburst caught the attention of those nearby. Lowering his voice, Eumund grabbed his uncle by the shoulder. "Sooner or later, all these outlanders will swarm across Adalrik. When that time comes, you will be needed to command the defence. You know I am right, but you let your feelings blind you."
Finally, Athelstan looked at his nephew. "How am I to stand before your brother and tell him that I abandoned you?" Expressions of pity, fear, or other emotions struggled for control of his face.
"You stand with pride," Eumund impressed upon him, "and you tell Isenwald that his brother fought for the honour of Isarn. You tell him that I have done my duty, as you must now do yours."
Athelstan placed both hands on the shoulders of the younger knight. "I cannot lose you, boy." He shook his head. "I will not."
"Uncle, I will not forgive nor ever respect you again, unless you do what we both know to be right," Eumund declared. "I renewed my oath as a knight because you did. If you dishonour it now, if you choose family over your duty as a knight once again, you make a mockery of us both."
Athelstan stared at his nephew. Foregoing words, he pulled Eumund into an embrace.
The young man returned it before pulling back. "Farewell, Uncle. I will seek what sleep I can. A long day awaits me tomorrow."
Shortly after sunrise, the outlanders marched forward in force. Their ranks were deep, like a sea of red; the Mearcians stood less than three thousand. A few hundred soldiers, including every remaining knight, had been sent to the hills; reversely, the longbowmen had been positioned behind the main army on flat ground.
The Anausa marched forward slowly. Unlike yesterday, they did not seem in a hurry. Those with sharpest eyes could spot more red robes in the far distance, moving into the hills.
A man rode through the ranks of the outlanders, continuing forward. He wore the fire-touched robe marking him a priest of the Godking. His lone approach ahead of the army made it clear he came to offer terms. Once within earshot, his voice rang out across the muddy stretch of land separating the two forces, still bloody from yesterday’s engagement.
"I come before you on behalf of Jenaab Sikandar," the herald declared in fluent Nordspeech, "who leads the glorious armies sanctified by the holiest majesty, the Godking." He received no reply other than the wind whipping the banners of the Order. "Jenaab Sikandar acknowledges your courage, and he has no wish to see you all slaughtered. You proved your valour yesterday. Now prove your wisdom. Lay down your arms and surrender to the Godking’s mercy. You shall find his rule benevolent."
The lines of the Order soldiers separated to let Fionn walk through. "Come closer," the knight yelled. "I cannot stab you from this distance!" Anxious laughter resonated through the ranks.
"Your boastful defiance is almost admirable, yet it will not avail you. Surrender and you may live in peace and plenty," the herald claimed. "Only a fool would choose death."
"Those are the words of a thrall," Fionn retorted, "and your master is nothing but a king of thralls."
The Servant of the Flame turned his horse around, riding back to his own ranks, while they advanced. The second day of battle had begun.
Arrows were exchanged to little effect. As yesterday, the shields and armour kept the Mearcians safe; on the other hand, their longbowmen were too few to make an impact on the outlanders.
The Order soldiers stood firm, awaiting their enemy. The Anausa approached. They lowered spears. Once again, battle cries tore through the air.
The battle was deadliest in the hills. Two thousand outlanders had moved to outflank the Mearcians through this route; less than fifty knights and a few hundred men stood in their path. Their only advantage lay in the terrain. It disrupted the ranks of the outlanders, breaking up their advance. Hiding between the hills, the Mearcians struck without warning.
Superior in equipment and training, the knights cut through the outlanders. Encouraged, the Order soldiers threw themselves into the fray. The unexpected audacity of their assault lent surprise as another advantage. Yet all of this could not compare to the outlanders being nearly ten to one. Surrounded, the Mearcians fell.
On the flat land, the Order still held. Their longer spears and larger shields held the outlanders at bay in the narrow gap. In response, Jenaab Sikandar gave his next command. A variety of vessels launched into the lake. Small fishing boats, taken from nearby villages. Rafts, primitive but able to float. All in all, hundreds of outlanders sailed onto Lake Myr.
Expecting this, the Mearcian longbowmen had saved most of their arrows. Now they aimed their bows south. Raising shields, the outlanders protected the men rowing, and those standing often took a wound instead. As they closed the distance, some took out bows to return the favour; lacking shields or strong armour, the longbowmen were easy targets. The other outlanders jumped out of the boats and rafts. A handful were too eager or too short, and their boots did not find ground. Burdened by their equipment and lacking the skill to swim, they drowned. The rest came ashore, ready to outflank the Mearcians. Drawing short swords, the longbowmen rushed forward, and where they met, the blood flowed into the water of the lake.
To the north, soldiers began to appear. The first were Mearcians; the few who had managed to flee the slaughter in the hills. Afterwards came the Anausa. Reaching the battleground, they struck into the Order’s left flank. For a moment, the battle seemed over; enveloped on both sides, the defenders seemed overwhelmed.
Yet the fighting in the hills had not been in vain, buying precious time. One thousand soldiers, the last of the reinforcements sent under Athelstan from Middanhal, arrived as well. The outlanders to the north turned from attack to defence, struck in their own flank. Chaos spread across the field as battlelines disintegrated.
In the midst of the mayhem, Sir Fionn’s standard bearer waved his banner to summon the lieutenants. Two men-at-arms appeared, meeting the knight in the middle of their own forces. All three were dyed in blood, both their own and that of others. The knight held half a spear, as it had broken earlier; the shield strapped to his arm hung low.
"How long can you hold?" Fionn shouted amidst the sound of steel and screams.
"We’re falling apart," replied his lieutenant from the northern flank. "We won’t last an hour!"
"We’re not faring much better," said the other. "Few archers remain, the rest dead or in flight. They’ll break through sooner or later."
"The reinforcements have pushed them back briefly," added the first man-at-arms. "If we retreat now, that’ll be our best chance to escape!"
Fionn let his eyes sweep over the battlefield. Near him sat the wounded and dying, having crawled or been carried out of the frontline. To the north, red and black colours met in mayhem. The centre and the south held for now, but the ranks were thin.
"Once we break, Adalrik will be overrun," the knight muttered. "We have to hold until sunset," he continued with a loud voice. He turned to the second man-at-arms. "Get the wounded and retreat. Move through the night. If we hold until dark, that should give you time to flee."
As one lieutenant hurried away to carry out the command, the other grabbed Fionn by the shoulder. "They’ll surround us," he shouted, fear overtaking his voice. "We won’t get away!"
The knight wrested his shoulder free, threw away the broken spear in his hand, and drew his sword. "Good," he retorted. "We have no other place to be." He stepped across dying men in bloody mud to reach the northern flank, joining the fray.