The Payment for Time
Smoke signals on the foothills of the Weolcans brought the message to Herbergja that the relief army had arrived. The same day, Arndis found the marshal in his chambers. "It is time to offer a truce again," she spoke. "With the relief army, our argument is strengthened."
"Every day you may buy is precious," Asger agreed, "though I am unsure if they will listen. They will know Belvoir is greatly outnumbered and in no position to end the siege."
"Nonetheless, I intend to try. How much time would you ask for, within reason?"
The marshal scratched his beard. "With two weeks, we might have luck to slip past their ships and bring stone back from the quarries. Another two weeks to use it on the harbour walls."
"I shall endeavour to give you that much."
"Anything less will still be a blessing. I will have a carriage and horses readied for you and your retinue," Asger told her. "If you are able to spot any signs of their ships, that will be valuable to know."
"I will keep an eye out," she promised. "I shall tell my guards to do the same."
He inclined his head. "Very well, my lady. I know the people of the city are grateful for your efforts."
She gave a magnanimous smile. "It is my duty, after all."
"The northerners have sent their envoy again, sidi," Adherbal said as he entered the prince's tent. "They must be aware of the army's arrival."
"The smoke we saw in the hills," Saif considered.
"Shall I allow them entry?"
"Not yet," the prince bade him. "Is there anything gained by negotiating with them? With the new threat on our flank, they will surely not be more inclined to surrender."
"Indeed, sidi, that cannot be why they have come." The advisor folded his hands in front of him. "They might hope we are inclined to accept peace, but given this relief army is not strong enough to engage us, they must know we are not inclined either."
"What then? A simple attempt to spy on our camp?"
"In their position, I would seek to buy time, sidi," Adherbal considered. "Have some excuse to cease hostilities for the time being."
The prince sent his counsellor a doubtful look. "Why would I ever agree to such? Are they fools to think I would sit idle while they strengthen their defences?"
"Certainly, as time passes, they gather more troops. But our latest news from their capital says the northern king has gone east with his veterans," Adherbal replied. "It will be months before he can reach us, and this peasant rabble is of little threat."
"So? We gain nothing by waiting."
"Not necessarily, sidi. With a truce, we might greatly strengthen our defences to the east. And our fleet will have time to make another trip, gathering our final troops still awaiting arrival."
Saif frowned. "It feels like playing into their hands, giving them time. We cannot wait forever. If the northern king arrives with his full army, we will be destroyed."
"There is another threat to consider," Adherbal countered.
"The island fleet."
"I remember the news. The queen has taken her brother captive. Surely that should only encourage us to hurry our assault?" Saif considered.
"Or we should take advantage of this truce to sail our last troops north before the islander ships raid our lines and winter storms keep our fleet trapped in harbour," Adherbal pointed out. "If we do not transport those troops now, we may not get another chance."
"What if the islander ships prevent us from assaulting the harbour?" Saif countered. "If we wait, we might lose our only opportunity to take the city."
"That is the risk," Adherbal admitted. "Against this must be weighed that the city must also be held once we take it. Another ten thousand mercenaries could determine whether we succeed or fail."
The prince let out his breath. "Delay or act? What would you advise me to do?"
The advisor chewed on his lip. "Sooner or later, the northern king will march on us. I think once he does, Your Highness will want every soldier at his side."
"Shall I permit the envoy inside?"
"Not yet. Go and speak with her of idle matters. Give me time to think."
At length, Arndis was led into the prince's tent. He greeted her politely and gestured for a servant to offer a drink and a seat.
"My thanks," she replied, accepting both. "I appreciate your hospitality."
"Our last meeting was curt, I admit," Saif responded, taking a seat himself while Adherbal moved to stand behind him. "Even in war, courtesy is important."
"Perhaps especially so."
The prince gave a brief smile. "True. But you have come to discuss greater matters, I surmise."
"I have. I seek to reach a peace settlement with you, honoured prince, and end this war."
"I fear your journey is wasted," Saif responded. "Unless the city surrenders, we have nothing further to discuss."
"I see." Arndis took a moment to think. "If not lasting peace, might we agree upon a truce?"
"Why should such a thing take place?"
"The hostilities have kept us from celebrating summer solstice," Arndis explained. Adherbal's face twitched briefly. "A respite would also let us both bury our dead and treat our wounded without fear of renewed fighting."
"We are perfectly capable of doing that," Saif replied. "And your customs are not our issue."
"In exchange for a truce of six weeks, I will offer you something otherwise beyond your reach."
"You would be fortunate to get three weeks," the prince declared. "What is your offer?"
Some hours after her departure, Arndis returned to the Order castle in Herbergja. She was met in the courtyard by the marshal and her companions, looking at her with various degrees of apprehension.
"What did they say?" asked Asger.
Dismounting, Arndis let her eyes glance from the knight to the other women. "They agreed to a month under two conditions."
"They will not allow any to enter or leave the city during the truce. Any attempts to do so will be blocked and considered a breach," Arndis explained.
"To be expected. They would never let us bring troops or supplies in," Asger considered. "But a few small boats at night to the quarries... and the other?"
The noblewoman looked at Jana. "They demand that the Kabir's daughter is returned to them to mend the slight done to Alcázar."
"Madness," exclaimed Eleanor. "Surely you rejected this outright?"
"I agreed to consider it, if nothing else to make another day pass," Arndis replied.
Meanwhile, Jana's face had gone pale. "Pardon me," she mumbled and turned around to hurry inside the castle.
"Oh dear," Eleanor said.
"I will speak with her," Arndis declared, giving the marshal a reassuring look.
She followed in Jana's footsteps, walking inside. She went up the winding stairs to reach the chambers that the noblewomen shared. Cautiously pushing the door open to an inner room, she found Jana sitting on her bed.
"I am sorry," Arndis claimed. "This cannot be easy for you."
"I do not wish to go back," Jana breathed.
The other woman sat down next to her. "I understand. Nobody here wants you to leave. But I had to bring back the terms they offered."
"What will happen if I do not leave?"
"They will attack. They will take the city, most likely. It cannot hold."
"But the relief army arrived," Jana argued.
"It is not strong enough," Arndis explained. "More troops are needed, including those from Thusund. That will take time, which we cannot get any other way."
"I do not know what my father will do if I go back." Jana looked away, hiding her face.
"It is a heavy burden to place on you." Arndis took a deep breath. "But if those mercenaries enter the city, sacking and looting..."
"How long until Brand might arrive?"
"He would only have entered the Reach by now. Even if he turned back and hurried here, he would be months away," Arndis explained. "You are the only hope for this city." She placed one hand on Jana's shoulder.
"They require an answer tomorrow?"
Jana steadied her breathing. "I will do it. Tomorrow. Let me have until then."
"Of course." Arndis rose. "I shall tell the marshal of your courage." Squeezing, Jana's shoulder, she rose and left the room.
Left alone, the lady of Alcázar sat for a while as if paralysed. Finally, she rose and entered another room. It had a writing desk with supplies, allowing the ladies to write letters. Sitting down, blinking her tears away, Jana took the quill and began writing.
The next day, several horses stood saddled in the courtyard of the Order castle. Several kingthanes waited by them, and much of the garrison had gathered as well to watch the departure. Finally, the four noblewomen came from the keep, escorted by the marshal.
"You once came to warn us of danger," Asger spoke to Jana, "and now you leave to keep us safe. It shall not be forgotten." He bowed his head low.
"Thank you, sir knight," the lady replied hoarsely.
"I will miss you," Eleanor sniffed, giving the other woman a hug.
"Likewise." Taking a deep breath, Jana walked over the horse that awaited her.
"With your leave, milady, I'd like to stay with you," said the kingthane holding the reins of her steed.
"That is not needed, Sandar, but thank you."
"If it's the same to you, I'll do it even so. If the king was here, it's what he'd want." Looking into the ground, the thane shifted his weight from leg to leg. "It doesn't feel right leaving you all alone."
"If that is how you feel, I will not dissuade you." Taking an offered hand from her protector, Jana mounted the horse. As the garrison gave a salute, placing their fists on their chests, the small procession rode out.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, currently focused on writing Firebrand. See my other fictions on this profile or my website for my previously completed projects.