We Were All
An exuberant mood had taken hold of the outlander camp, even if victory brought new labours. The dead had to be stripped of valuables and disposed of. The wounded needed treatment. Patrols on horseback had to be sent out to chase down survivors and search the area for hostile forces, ensuring the army was safe while carrying out these tasks.
In his tent, Sikandar had gathered his lieutenants. They crowded around a crudely drawn map showing the location of the battle, including the lake, hills, and the land between. Various pieces, exquisitely carved in comparison, showed the placement of both Order and outlander troops. Together, the commanders discussed the events of the battle, moving the pieces around, allowing them to learn and improve their tactics.
A soldier entered quietly, standing to the side, as far away as possible from the shadow warrior in the back of the tent. At length, Sikandar’s attention fell upon him. "What is it?"
He bowed his head. "Forgive me, Jenaab Sikandar. You asked for any captured knight to be brought to you."
"I did, long ago. What is the delay?"
Licking his lips, the soldier spoke again with an anxious look. "It seemed most of them died, or they would not reveal themselves. We did finally find one with golden spurs, as you told us. He is ready to be questioned."
With a bow and a nervous look at the shadow warrior, the soldier hurried out of the tent.
"I am not surprised," Rostam declared. "These knights fight like demons and prefer death to capture."
"Had your hands full in the hills?" Arash smirked.
"Someone had to do the hard part. If our Zhayedan fought with the same strength, this battle would have ended on the first day," Rostam claimed.
Sikandar cleared his throat, sending the briefest of glances at the shadow warrior. If the exchange had perturbed his mood, however, no such emotion could be read in his amber eyes.
The soldier returned with the captive, whose hands and legs wore chains. He had been stripped of his surcoat and armour; his woollen tunic had many marks of dried blood.
"I am Jenaab Sikandar," the captain spoke in Mearcspeech. "Who are you?"
The Mearcian raised his head to let his defiant stare move from one outlander to the next. "I am Sir Fionn of Cairn Donn, knight of the Order of Adal."
"I would ask for your aid," Sikandar explained. "As we are both men of rank, I see no need for matters to get unpleasant."
The knight looked past the captain’s shoulder to stare at the shadow warrior’s face, wrapped in cloth. "Ask if you seek disappointment."
"We already have patrols searching the area. Your knowledge would make little difference, but I will appreciate the gesture," Sikandar said. "I simply wish to know the location of your remaining forces in the area."
"I do not give aid to my enemies, regardless of threat."
"Perhaps you think we are unaware of the six thousand men from the riverlands," the captain continued. "Rest assured, we shall be ready when they arrive."
Unexpected laughter issued from Fionn, making the outlanders exchange glances.
"You find this amusing?" Sikandar asked.
"Those men are long gone."
"This simple attempt at deceit will not help them nor your present situation. We already have forces in the hills. Once they march down the road, we shall fall upon them from all sides."
Fionn smiled to himself. "We warned them. We bought them time." He looked at Sikandar. "Your scouts will return and tell you the same. Your victory has been made hollow."
"I find it hard to believe your army would stay in place, fighting a hopeless battle, unless you planned to be reinforced," Sikandar considered. "If not by the men of the riverlands, then by another force. Did you hope that the garrison of the city called Inghold would avail you?"
Fionn shook his head with a smile born of disbelief.
"Tell me, and I may yet be lenient. Where are your other troops? Where may we expect to be attacked? If you attempt falsehood, you will regret it." Behind the captain, the shadow warrior stepped forward with a menacing look in his eyes; a low growl came from beneath the mask and cloth around his face.
Fionn shrugged, raising his hands; the chains rattled in response. "We were all."
The tent opening flew aside, and the Servant of the Flame strode in.
"You have not been summoned," Sikandar spoke harshly.
"I go where the Godking requires me," the priest responded with the same acrimony. "All drylanders of high rank are to be sacrificed for his glory, yet I find your men refuse to yield this prisoner."
"Because those of high rank would be the only men possessing worthwhile knowledge," the captain retorted. "You may have your pick among the common soldiery."
The priest’s face turned the same shade as his flame-dyed robe. "As if that would be fitting tribute! The Godking has honoured us with this victory, for only through his power did we vanquish our enemy! He must be honoured in turn with the worthiest sacrifice." He already brandished a knife in his hand, aiming it at Fionn.
"The fact we outnumbered them ten to one probably helped also," Arash mumbled.
"You may sacrifice all the prisoners you wish," Sikandar declared, "except those that have value for our campaign."
The priest clenched the handle of his blade until his own nails drew blood from the inside of his hand. "And you believe that success hinges on your feeble actions rather than the Godking’s favour?"
"I believe it is my responsibility to do all that I can to serve the Godking," Sikandar replied coldly.
The Servant of the Flame glared at the shadow warrior, who did not react. He turned on his heel and left with the same angry stride that had brought him in.
"Keep this prisoner alone and secure," Sikandar told the guard by Fionn. "Do not let any remove him, least of all the Servant."
Bowing his head, the soldier pulled on Fionn’s chains and led him out.
As usual, the blackboots had gone further on their scouting trips than other outlanders. While the Anausa patrolled the vicinity, only the blackboots had travelled beyond the hills to enter central Adalrik. They found pleasant fields in spring, growing tender stalks of grain. As for the people, some had fled hearing the rumours of battle, but most remained in their villages, hoping the tide of war would wash past them.
Kamran moved nearly unseen through the landscape. He had an ordinary, grey cloak cast around him, making him appear like any Mearcian from afar. Should need arise, he could return the cape to his pack, leaving him clad in his dark clothes that concealed his movements at night.
Walking with caution through the fields, he froze in his tracks upon hearing the strange warbling of a bird uncommon in these parts. Looking around, Kamran made the same sound, repeating the call.
As the sound was exchanged back and forth, the blackboot approached the other source. Moving through a thicket, he found not a bird, but Godfrey.
"Javed!" he exclaimed. "What luck to find you here!"
"Luck?" Godfrey coughed and cleared his throat repeatedly. "I’ve been singing like a burnt crow for three days straight. My throat is killing me." He massaged the aforementioned part.
"Have you met any of the others?"
"No, you’re the only one. Got any water?"
Kamran shared the skin hanging by his waist. "There was a battle. It went ill for the drylanders."
"I know." Godfrey drank greedily from the skin. "It was to be expected. At least the remaining troops have been able to withdraw."
"That explains why our search has been in vain. Jenaab Sikandar assumed another force was nearby."
"There’s a barely a soldier between you and Middanhal, they’ve all gone north. Best you tell the good captain that you have seen tracks leading west," Godfrey told the blackboot. "Let him think the forces from the riverlands have withdrawn."
"I shall," Kamran nodded. "What else?"
"Every hour you can buy will be valuable. The drylanders are assembling their troops, but it will take time. How fast may the Godking assault the great city?"
"The first army will not be enough to take it. With a forced march, the second may arrive within a month," Kamran speculated. "Javed, they claim the Godking himself leads it."
"He is more eager for victory than I thought," Godfrey speculated, "to leave his stronghold already. I imagined he would only travel once the war had been won."
"The powers he brings with him…" The blackboot shuddered. "There is a fravashi in every part of our camp, it seems, and many more must be travelling with him."
"The battle will be even harder than I first anticipated," the wanderer admitted. "But in his eagerness, he may show himself vulnerable. There are powers on our side as well, my friend."
"I hope so." Kamran exhaled. "To imagine we may be the sons and daughters to see freedom."
Godfrey reached to clasp the other man’s arm. "Till the morrow comes."
"Till the morrow comes."