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Part III: Martial strains (second half)

Return to the first half of Part III

Contents

Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15

Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20

Chapter 11: Gareth

We moved smooth and fast through the mountains, the scouts encountering only normal traffic. My lecture must have done some good, ’cause no one got through without being escorted to me for an interview first. Nothing of any interest turned up, but the practice was an effective reminder we weren’t playing games anymore. Anders’ words were getting around just fine, and almost everyone knew we were going to be in an honest-to-goodness war soon. It wasn’t the real thing yet, but the constant practice was a good way of getting them used to the idea.

Early in the trip, I found myself glad Philip had made sure we all brought heavy cloaks—it got cold at night, even though it was still many weeks ’til winter, and once we reached the midpoint of our travels I allowed no fires other than by day, and then only for cooking. On the fourth day, we started downhill. That brought out the laughing and complaints that’d been beaten out of everyone by the long uphill climb, ’cause now our weight was helping us onward instead of holding us back.

As we dropped down into the plains, my scouts met up with the Belfalasian troops who’d been sent to meet us. The scouts brought their leader, indignant at being treated with suspicion, but he didn’t quite manage to hide a guilty look when he recognized me. I pretended not to notice, and together we made arrangements for our passage through the farmlands and into town. An outnumbered, nervous honor guard led us through the walls, my men strutting past confused farmers and frightened merchants. It was nice to see their respect, though, once they recognized our banner and understood where we’d come from. I was willing to bet they knew as much about Amelior’s advance as we did, and were grateful they wouldn’t have to meet them on their own.

I was looking forward to our meeting with Rothsbane and the town council. After leaving my troops to set up shop in the barracks that’d been cleared for our use, I took Anders and Philip with me to meet the town council. The councilmen didn’t worry me much, ’cause a single strong ruler would have been a much greater challenge. Anything run by a committee never works because the constant bickering prevents them from acting in a crisis. All it’d take would be a reminder of what it’d be like without us, of how much they’d lose, and they’d come over to our way of thinking before they could stop disagreeing long enough to unite against me. It’s mighty nice to hold all the cards.

Rothsbane was the one who worried me. He'd give us trouble, ’cause he was arrogant and conceited enough to try and unite the others behind him. As we rode up to the old palace, which had been taken over by the council after the last of the monarchy's line faded away, I was trying to think of ways to remove Rothsbane from my list of problems as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The council chamber was filled with nearly two-score loud, self-important, argumentative farmers and merchants. Rothsbane was conspicuous in his absence, and that suited me just fine ’cause it meant I might be able to finish my business before he arrived and tried to turn things his way. When I entered the room flanked by my bodyguard, everyone quieted down fast. It helped that some of them recognized me, by name and reputation if not by sight, and that others were intimidated by the entry of travel-stained soldiers into the midst of their fancy clothing. We could have come in the ceremonial stuff Philip had insisted we bring, but the effect wouldn’t have been nearly so impressive. Though we had to displace a few councilmen to do so, we managed to get three seats facing the doors.

Once we were seated, leaning our swords against the table so the hilts stood in plain sight, everyone started talking at once despite the chairman’s frantic efforts to restore order. I let this go on a while, noting which councilmen were bright enough to be quiet and watch us, then had Anders quiet them down again. He did this as simply and subtly as I would have—he stepped up onto the table's shiny surface in his boots, which were still muddy from the road, and held his sword above his head. “To the glory of Ankur!” he shouted.

All conversation ceased. I stood up, reflecting that Anders showed promise. “In future, gentlemen, ask the chairman for permission to talk. Anyone who doesn’t like the idea can discuss it further with my aide.” I gestured with my thumb at Anders, who climbed back down from the table, smiling from ear to ear and leaving a clump of mud in plain sight.

Anders beamed at the silent circle, laid his blade back against the table, and sat down with a cocky grin. He looked to be enjoying this too much, a reminder that I needed to look less smug myself. I’ll skip the chairman’s speech, ’cause you’ve heard the ‘mutual cooperation’, ‘common foe’, and ‘dark times’ blather before, and the fact that it was true this time didn’t make it any more interesting. Rothsbane showed perfect timing by arriving just as the speech started winding down; I’d bet he’d been waiting outside the chamber the whole time so he could make his own dramatic entrance.

The doors to the council chamber burst open and a dozen or so men-at-arms entered. As they began taking up strategic positions about the room, old Rothsbane himself strutted in as proud as a king, done up in his best ceremonial gear. Another dozen men entered behind him, drawing shut the doors as they came into the room, and I put a hand on Anders’ arm to reassure him. Philip just smiled in appreciation. Rothsbane made a little fuss over evicting a few merchants when he discovered there were no seats left for him and his aides, and as he rose to begin his speech, I spoke up and cut him off.

“Take a seat, Commander. Now that you’re here, we can start dickering over the arrangements.” Having spoiled the effect of his entrance, I took away most of his bluster. His half-open mouth closed with a snap, and he sat down fast, though the look in his eyes was anything but meek. Score one point for us! I remained standing until he stopped fussing with his sword belt, which had gotten tangled in his chair as he sat, then gave them the speech I’d prepared with Philip before we got here.

“Let’s cut all the fancy talk, gents, ’cause I’m no good at it. You know I’m here to help save your town”—no sense telling them the whole truth—“and you know how inconvenient this is for Ankur. If you want our help, you’ll have to accept our terms, no arguments allowed.” I didn’t point out this defense was as much in our interest as in theirs, ’cause it would have given them a good bargaining tool. Fortunately, they hadn’t realized this yet—not surprising considering the quality of their military organization.

The chairman spoke up. “And what might those terms be?” A few who I’d already noted watched me coolly, each man smart and patient enough to try to barter for his own special favors later on. I could see several adding up the bill already, assuming that extortion was all that was on our minds.

John had warned me to be polite, but to not give an inch if I didn’t have to. “There’s a whole list of political items which don’t concern me at present, ’cause they all come into effect after the war.” I pulled out a thick parchment scroll from the case Philip had held out and flipped it to a nearby councilor, one of the less patient ones. I grinned, enjoying the fact that the whole document had been designed by Ankur’s best diplomats for one purpose: to keep the council busy squabbling and off our backs until we’d had time to secure our military position here.

“You can discuss the details with my aide Philip, here, afterwards. Let me reassure you in advance that none of our... requests... will infringe on your sovereignty after the war. The only thing that concerns me now is that you must turn over complete control of military matters, to me and to my fellow commander when he arrives with reinforcements.” I sat down, managing to hide my smile.

Up shot Rothsbane. “Preposterous! Turn control of our entire defense to two men, one a deserter from our very own armed forces? Never! Consider yourself lucky, Gareth, that we don’t throw you in the dungeons and assume command of your men.” He glared around the room in triumph as the ensuing babble told him most of those present agreed. The same few remained silent, watching me, and I smiled at each of them to let them know they were appreciated... and identified. Rothsbane straightened up and looked left and right, then waved for silence and stared in my direction, assuming he'd won.

“Be sure you understand, Sirrah, that your bargaining position is not so strong as you take it to be!” He sat down, looking smug. I remained seated.

“I take it, then, that the ruling council of Belfalas has agreed among themselves as to how this war should be conducted? That Ankur’s generous offer of military assistance has been refused?” I was again able to keep from smiling, though it took an effort even after years of learning how to keep a false face through endless card games in the barracks.

There was sudden silence, followed by a babble of outrage. Meantime, Rothsbane looked like he was about ready to burst. It took an effort, but he calmed himself, realizing he’d underestimated us and sending me a look of admiring hatred. As the noise began to die down, he saluted me and sat in stony silence as the rest of the discussion went on. Now, the formerly silent councilmen began to talk, directing policy in the direction of my ‘request’. Others blustered and made conditions, but even they gave in when I stuck to my position. By the time the meeting dissolved about an hour later, Philip had arranged for a second meeting in a day or so to discuss the political side of things, and I was the supreme commander of military forces in Belfalas. For the moment.

***

I left most of the organization to Philip, knowing that it was his strong point, not mine. While the veteran set about arranging provisioning and preparing the city for a siege, Anders revealed a hidden talent at assessing our new forces and proposing how to rearrange them into effective divisions; with my permission, he then began ferrying our advance guard across the river. The men who’d served under me during my stay in this town were glad to join us, and Rothsbane was sensible enough to let them. He even cooperated so far as to turn over to us lists of civilian recruits who could be rounded up for service. Maybe he wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d expected... or maybe he was just planning something more subtle now he knew who he was dealing with. I left Anders behind with a few men to help Philip set up our supply lines to the west and to report back to the east, then set off.

The march westward took us almost as long as the trip from Ankur, and was even less comfortable. We sent out more scouts, farther ahead, and of course didn’t allow any fires by night. It was lucky these mountains were lower than the last set we’d come through, ’cause it was warmer.

What I hadn’t noticed during the last trip Bram and I’d made through this pass was how easy the defense might turn out to be. Unlike the pass leading to Ankur, this pass narrowed sharply at the top, and was flanked by steep cliffs, unclimbable according to the few mountain men we’d recruited from Belfalas as guides. The descent to Belfalas was gentle enough to allow an easy retreat, and curved to hide our retreat from enemy spotters. Finally, the descent to Arden was too steep for an easy climb, and gave us long, uninterrupted views of the approach, often for several hundred yards before a twist in the trail cut off sight.

John had warned me that the soldiers of Belfalas should meet the first attack, so I sent them to the first bend beyond where we set our main camp. I gave them explicit instructions about how and where to set their ambush. On the advice of our mountain men, we piled enough boulders on a rock slope to start a small avalanche. It wouldn’t do any useful amount of damage, but it would be good for morale and should disorganize the enemy enough to help our retreat back to the main lines. I sent scouts farther down the pass, almost as far as Arden, to give us plenty of warning when Amelior’s scouts came down the pass. The enemy scouts would be good men, but they wouldn’t expect any effective resistance from Belfalas; with luck, we could capture them before they had a chance to warn Amelior of our ambush. On Bram’s suggestion, we sent several of our own men downslope with carts bearing trade goods so Amelior wouldn’t be warned by a sudden lack of traffic; they’d also provide good warning before Amelior began moving. We’d talked about the possibility of spies in Belfalas already having informed Amelior of our arrival, but since we couldn’t do anything to prevent this, we’d made no plans to do anything about it. In the meantime, we weren’t going to let any other travelers head west through the pass. That turned out not to be a problem, ’cause the rumors of war had made sure nobody was willing to dare the trip.

We’d planned our main defense for the crest of the pass so we could use the land to slow down any charge from their horsemen. To help discourage them, we dug shallow pits here and there in what little soft ground we could find in front of our position, filled them with short, sharpened stakes, and covered them. The work took days because of all the rock in the ground, and left more undefended gaps than protected areas, but at least it left an open area on one side that Belfalas could retreat through. I also sent climbers a short distance up one side cliff with hammer and chisel, up to a wide ledge our mountain men had found, so they could install ropes. Putting our archers there once Amelior arrived would give us an additional range advantage over Amelior’s archers. I put anyone who had nothing better to do to good use building earthworks behind the trenches using the abundant rocks and earth we'd removed through our digging.

The only thing I didn’t much like about my setup was that the Belfalasians would have to retreat under pursuit. If Bram and his cavalry didn’t arrive from Ankur in time, that would mean suicide for the ambushers. But with Bram here and with enough warning from our forward scouts, the ambush had a good chance of giving Amelior a bloody nose before the real fighting began.

***

Several days later, in the middle of a brief but surprising late-summer blizzard, a messenger arrived to tell us Bram had arrived in Belfalas and would soon be coming to meet us. I sent the messenger ahead to alert Rothsbane, who’d arrived yesterday to join his own men farther down the pass. Speaking of which, old Ratsbane turned out to be a decent enough guy in the field. He still hated my guts, but at least he admitted I knew what I was doing and he was willing to take orders. That’s one nice thing about patriotism—it can make enemies bury the hatchet in their mutual enemies instead of each other.

Before Bram arrived, a message reached us from downslope towards Arden. One ‘merchant’ we’d sent to Arden had returned with news that the siege of Arden would soon be over and that an Ameliorite scouting party had begun mustering for a foray up the pass. I was impressed, and intimidated—no refugees had made it through their lines and into the pass. I gave the scouts orders to withdraw without being seen—no use letting anyone know we were here this early in the fight—and settled down to wait for Bram.

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Chapter 12: Bram

I had hoped to make better time and perhaps even catch up with Gareth, but our departure was delayed. We had chosen to bring a few light siege engines with us to Belfalas, but since there was still time to spare, we waited until they were tested and then disassembled for transport. Once we were underway, the baggage train moved so slowly that even though this was hardly the first time I had done this sort of thing, I felt sure we would never arrive in time. The necessity of transporting extra weaponry, cavalry supplies such as barding and spare tack, and the few journeyman weaponsmiths and armorers Ankur could spare, plus all their personal gear, chafed me. But it had to be endured: Belfalas had few of these resources; in fact, they imported most of their military supplies from Ankur.

Finally, however, we reached the mountains.

It felt foolish posting scouts in our own lands, but I did so nonetheless. If nothing else, it was one more step on the road to bringing myself back to an adequate state of readiness for combat. Moreover, I was unable to rule out the possibility of Ameliorite fifth columnists after the King’s death. My scouts were diligent, and arrested any stray travelers who passed our way, even though none had aught suspicious about them. Most of those who had arrived from Belfalas had already been caught once by Gareth’s scouts, which relieved me even though they were justifiably irate at being pulled in a second time. Their tongues would wag when they reached town, but the gossip would be at our backs, where it would not reach hostile ears.

One incident marred the morning of our departure: a conversation with Alison about her presence on the journey. It started innocently enough with a final offer to let her stay behind in Ankur; we both knew this offer to be a mere formality, but I had to ask nonetheless.

She raised an eyebrow. “What, Sir... would you have me disobey the orders of my Queen?”

“Orders?”

“To keep a close eye on you and report back if you showed any signs of erratic behavior.”

“Erratic behavior?”

“Certainly. After you’d done your best to ruin her music lesson, she took me aside and asked my opinion of you. In effect, she wanted to learn where you would fit in the new scheme of things, as you’d been conspicuous by your absence at the few court functions we've had since your arrival. She already knew of our relationship, you see, and hoped to benefit from it.”

“She did, did she? And how might she have learned of us?”

“I imagine she must have heard it from my rivals at court.” Her look dared me to comment, but being no fool, I held my tongue. “As you well know, we’ve not been discreet about our meetings. A gentleman might consider an apology for tarnishing my reputation in that manner.”

“A gentleman might well do so,” I nodded my agreement.

We locked eyes for a moment. “In any event, it occurred to her I might prove a valuable source of information on your behavior, and as you well know, a Queen can’t rule without reliable information.”

“The fact that she arranged all of this on her own initiative suggests our new Queen is a formidable young woman.”

Unfortunately, it appeared I had gone one step too far with our badinage at that point, and she turned away from me in what I thought was mock fury. If it was indeed mock fury, it lasted the remainder of that day’s travel and most of that night. I had strong suspicions as to who had proposed what to whom, but in this case, discretion appeared to be a wiser course than valor. I let the issue drop.

Alison’s presence excited comment, and mutterings about privileges, though my men respected me enough or were cautious enough to keep the worst talk from my ears. I felt a modicum of distress at their gossip, but I had expected no less and felt more than compensated for any unease by her presence—that is, once we were talking again. Alison ignored the loose words with good humor, having known what to expect and having acquired skill at coping with such things during her stay in the palace. It helped that she had talent as a healer, which would be useful to us, and she had several opportunities to help our surgeons deal with the inevitable minor mishaps involved in moving a supply train through the mountains. On the whole, the most important thing was that Alison was with me now, and enjoyed the mountains every bit as much as I did; if anything, she enjoyed the journey more, as she had only traveled once in her life, across the plains from Volonor to Ankur. The crisp air that spoke of coming winter was heady as wine after the city's mustiness and smoky congestion, but her presence was every bit as intoxicating, and I found myself surprised at the intensity of my feelings.

When we descended from the mountains above Belfalas, we encountered a welcoming party led by Gareth’s aide, Philip. We exchanged greetings and I found the man to be competent and easy to get along with. Once we were done exchanging pleasantries, he succinctly filled me in on his preparations. In turn, I informed him of the King’s death and the subsequent turn of affairs in Ankur. He was not disturbed a whit by the King’s passing, openly amused by the bevy of suitors queuing up for Amanda’s hand, and pleased by John’s continued authority. Nonetheless, he cast a skeptical eye on Alison, who returned his gaze stonily until Philip blinked first and looked away. On the whole, I was gratified to hear that things were well under control in Belfalas and that, as predicted, the council was still in a ferment over the manifesto we had sent them. Philip’s progress, and the council’s lack thereof, meant I could move on to join Gareth without stopping to dally with farmers and merchants.

It took most of a day for us to cross the larger of the two rivers, after which the journey up into the mountains west of the city raced past. Our scouts soon met up with Gareth’s rearguard, and though they were nervous, finding themselves on the brink of a real war for the first time in their lives, they were well enough trained to meet us without incident. We moved onwards, coming at last to Gareth’s camp. As we drew near I looked around me, taking in the work underway and the tactical virtues of the land. I found little to disapprove of, but my inspection was close enough and revealed enough important deficiencies that the war whoop from behind me came as a great surprise, and Gareth’s vigorous greeting almost propelled me from my saddle.

Gareth sobered up soon enough and, much to my surprise, greeted Alison warmly before having her escorted to a large tent to the rear of the assembly. When I had put my own aides to work getting the men positioned in the camp and their mounts seen to, Gareth and I were left alone for a few moments, and we embraced strongly.

“Good to see you again, bro’.”

“The feeling is mutual, brother.” We stood there awkwardly for a moment, grinning, before Gareth turned businesslike and began detailing his preparations and as much of the situation as he knew. A small squad of Ameliorite saboteurs had been slain to the last man by his overeager advance guard, lying in ambush downslope, before they could be questioned, but at least they had been unable to reach Belfalas or escape to warn Amelior. In the meantime, our own forward scouts had been forced to withdraw before the cautious advance of Amelior’s scouts.

“So,” he finished off, “any questions or problems?”

“Just one or two,” I replied. “Assuming we hold them off long enough that the winter forces them to break off their campaign, your planning is sound. First, how will the men farther down the pass return to our ranks once Amelior engages them? Second, if Amelior breaks through our lines, how will we get your archers down from those cliffs?”

Gareth thought hard for a moment, then nodded his head, unoffended. “Any suggestions?”

I made my voice gentle to avoid embarrassing him. “First, get your archers off the cliffs. We already have the advantage of high ground, and they will be of more use covering the gap in our trenches at point-blank range, where their massed fire will do the most good. Shooting downslope is difficult enough without adding height, and they are also more flexible here, with us, since we can move them wherever they are most needed. Belfalas already has archers down the pass, so we can use our own to cover their retreat and support the cavalry. Second, we should consider sending troops back to Belfalas in case things do go badly for us; here, they may only delay Amelior for a time, but in town, their presence will force the council to fight on for a short while longer before they surrender. I suggest that we send Rothsbane and his men. Not only is he least likely to surrender without a chance for glory in the field, but he will also provide fresh horsemen to cover our own retreat."

I pondered a moment longer. "We should also arrange for signal fires in the event we are overrun and must warn Belfalas; they will remember this as a considerate gesture on our part, but more important than the goodwill that this will buy us is the option it provides to post a few of our own men inconspicuously in Belfalas. Upon seeing our signals, they can ride home to warn John we've been beaten. We can replace Rothsbane’s men here with our own men.”

“Wouldn’t it be better for morale if Belfalas drew first blood?”

“Yes... and no. If we draw first blood, at the risk of our own lives, we prove we are committed to their cause and willing to trust them at our backs, something they are taking on faith for the moment. Besides that, they know the plains and foothills better than we can hope to, whereas our forces are more at home in the mountains. Once we retreat, we shall want men familiar with the land available to harass anyone who pursues us. Or had you forgotten that we may have to run for home with our tails between our legs before winter sets in?”

 “I wasn’t counting on it. I’d hoped to hold them here ’till winter or ’till they’d realized they were beaten.”

I chuckled. “Brother mine, you are not nearly pessimistic enough for a commander. Shall we go and rearrange things a little?” We talked a while longer, then we did just that.

***

Two days later, with our new plans implemented and the perimeter defenses complete, we began drilling the men in maneuvers specific to our situation to ensure they could attack and retreat in safety. The drills produced a few injuries, all minor. Then, in the midst of yet another trial run, a messenger from downslope rode up to us, flushed with excitement.

“Lord Commander, I bring news from our forward guard. I am told to deliver it to you in your tent, and that it’s urgent.” I left my men to complete the drill with their squad leaders and rode back to the command tent. The messenger reported that Arden's surrender was complete, and that Amelior had sent a strong advance column into the pass. Gareth’s face was flushed with excitement at the news that our own scouts could now be withdrawn and at the imminent approach of battle. We had few days of freedom left to us, for it seemed that Amelior had no desire to overwinter in these mountains.

I ordered the messenger to recall our forward scouts, and to send Rothsbane back to Belfalas. As the man left, Gareth took a plume and sheet of paper and began slowly and painfully writing a report to Belfalas and to John. I had known that Gareth was no unlettered mercenary, despite his rough edges, but it astonished me to learn he could write. An uncommon talent for a ‘common’ soldier, and a reminder there was much I had yet to learn about my oath-brother. The missive complete, he summoned a messenger and sent him to Belfalas with our tidings. Not long afterwards, Rothsbane and his men rode past, stopping only long enough to salute us with icy courtesy. I was relieved that he accepted our orders without a struggle, but I made a mental note to watch him in case we had pushed him to an unseen limit.

Despite myself, anticipation surged, my old instincts rising up over a conscience I now forced into the background. In recent weeks, we had exhausted ourselves drilling our men to attain a level of preparation I had once taken for granted. The fatigue opens you up, and allows old, familiar patterns of thought to emerge. Yet beneath my excitement, I was not at all sanguine about what lay ahead. I concealed my inner conflicts from Gareth, and banished them from my own mind by dint of strenuous exertion and long hours spent planning and reviewing plans; at night, Alison was there to give me more pleasant things to think of.

***

I spent as much time as I could spare with Alison, but with battle near, that was little enough. She adapted to camp life better than I anticipated, and was busy with the surgeons, trying to improve her skills and make herself more useful to us. Our moments together, brief though they were, became something to be treasured. Though I had fought long and hard in the past, and had taken serious wounds, I had nonetheless survived, and this led to a certain belief in my own immortality. But after reaching Ankur, that illusion faded before the knowledge that once battle was joined, I might never see her again. Worse, her presence increased the keenness of that understanding.

One afternoon, looking for Gareth, I rounded the corner of a tent and ducked back in surprise. In a small, level area between tents, Gareth faced Alison, who had acquired a crude pair of men’s breeches. Dagger in hand, he was teaching her how to defend herself, and judging by the rents in Gareth’s padding, she was learning fast. As I watched, I began to regret not having thought of the idea first, but as I watched, I grew uncomfortable with the lessons. I intended to send Alison back to Belfalas at the first signs of trouble, and I had not intended to make a killer of her in the meantime. Nonetheless, Gareth was a fine instructor, and I could make myself sleep a little easier at night knowing that Alison had an alternative if she were attacked when I was not there to defend her. It was also easy to rationalize that anything capable of drawing my oath-brother and my lover closer together and reducing his distrust of her would make me happy indeed. Even after our discussion, Gareth had remained visibly unhappy about my bringing Alison here, and had accepted her story about the Queen’s orders with ill-concealed skepticism. In fact, I had never pressed her about the validity of her statement, and now I wondered whether I should have done so.

Clearing these thoughts from my mind, I left them to their practice. Subsequently, I took great pains to not notice the concealed sheath and knife that became a familiar, albeit inconspicuous, item of my lover’s apparel over the next few days.

***

I woke three days later to the sounds of running feet and the whinnies of excited horses. Alison rose after I had slipped out of our tent, and joined me as I stood conversing with the messenger who had been sent to wake me. Our own scouts had skirmished with the enemy downslope from the ambush point during a routine patrol, and the enemy’s main force was now less than an hour behind them. The scouts had orders to wait until Amelior drew almost within bow range, and then flee upslope, trying to draw the army into our ambush. I escorted Alison to her post with the surgeons, then gave her a lingering goodbye kiss. Moments later I stood with Gareth by the command tent, dressing leisurely in such of my armor as could be borne comfortably during the wait that lay ahead, and watching to the west for any sign of the enemy.

I debated sending a man to escort Alison away to Belfalas, then cleared those thoughts from my mind. Amelior would try to negotiate first, to discover our purpose here and the strength of our resolve, but once they had been attacked, they would want revenge. Nonetheless, in our first engagement, they would be cautious and would not commit themselves, not knowing the strength of our forces. That first battle would give us time to assess each other’s strength and give them time to assess our position, and if it looked as if they would overrun our position in a subsequent battle, I could send her away then.

Time passed, with little said. Waiting sat heavy in my stomach, a feeling of fullness bordering on nausea as the apprehension increased. Then, suddenly, the far-off rumble of falling rock told us Amelior had encountered our ambush. Observers partway up the cliffs above our camp kept us posted, calling down their news: the enemy had ridden into the rockfall, and were disordered by it. But they did not remain disorganized long, and they outnumbered our own small ambushing force by a large margin. Once they discovered the rockfall was only a distraction and our advance force smaller than it had at first seemed, they rallied. Anders led our men in a slow, disciplined retreat under cover of archery fire. I nodded to Gareth, then headed off at a run to join my riders, my squire tagging along behind with the burden of my steel breastplate and helm, which I donned as soon as we reached the horses.

In close order, we walked the horses through our feeble array of trenches, then began to move faster, fanning out into two narrow wedges, one leading the other by a score of yards. As we neared the melee, the first wedge increased speed to a slow canter and I raised my hand in warning. Then my arm came down and I couched my lance, breaking into a gallop. Horns blew as we charged, and ahead of us, our men, knowing what to expect from the message of the horns, broke off their individual combats and moved aside as best they could. At a full gallop, still in a tight wedge, we flew past them and into the enemy's closed ranks.

They had seen us coming, and had been alerted by our horns and the sudden flight of their opponents, but they had neither time nor room to react. Men went down beneath horses and lances, their screams and curses mingling with the bellows of enraged warhorses and the brittle snapping of lances. As the momentum of our charge faltered, I signaled the trumpeters to sound the retreat. We turned aside to regroup, warhorses flailing hooves at anyone injudicious enough to come close. To my pride, not a single man had been unhorsed in the initial shock. We retreated, drawing swords, battleaxes, and heavy maces to replace shattered lances, and fought our way to one side, lingering just long enough for them to begin to regroup. As they did, I signaled the trumpeters again, and their horns summoned our second wedge of riders. That second charge crashed into the enemy’s troops even as they had begun to regroup. Behind us, ragged lines of our own men, moving fast as they were able, were already nearing the trenches, dragging or carrying their wounded.

Breaking free of the melee, we rejoined the second wedge. More of the enemy fell, but resistance was stiffening and some of my own cavalry went down as well. Several regained their mounts, who reared protectively over them, lashing out with iron-shod hooves. But many who fell never rose again, isolated and surrounded, their horses cut down too. As we hacked about us, our mounts whirling and trampling without our guidance, the thrum of bowstrings told us Amelior had brought up their archers. I signaled the trumpeters to blow the retreat, and we broke free from the enemy's press.

Our casualties had been low, though they would not stay that way if we were foolhardy enough to remain within reach of trained bowmen. The majority of our infantry had made it back to our own lines, so we accelerated our retreat, hunched low over our horses and weaving like drunkards to confound the archers. Banners still flying defiantly, we retreated to the safety of our own lines, the bloodthirsty hum of arrows about our ears until we reached the trenches. I was exhilarated at our initial success, and submerged all contradictory feelings beneath pride in our performance.

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Chapter 13: Gareth

I cheered along with everyone else as our cavalry returned from downslope, but I didn’t relax until I’d picked Bram out of the crowd. Those who had fought made a pretty sight, all bloody and scratched and smiling, even though Bram’s look told me he wasn’t pleased about something. Our foot soldiers, led by a panting and grinning Anders with an unconscious man over his shoulder, welcomed them through the trenches, then many collapsed where they stood. Not surprising after an uphill run in light armor and after the first real fight most of them had ever been in.

“We gave it to them good, Sir!” shouted Anders, echoed by a cheer from the ranks that’d almost broken discipline and run to meet them. I looked downslope for the enemy they’d been kept in reserve to meet.

Order appeared amidst the mess we’d made of their column, and their lines had reformed. If the sign of a good army is discipline, then we had a nasty fight ahead of us. But not today. Their commander wisely decided to hold them back ’till he’d had time to check things over. I sent our archers forward to the earthworks on our side of the trenches, and the enemy withdrew just out of range, around the bend in the pass, rather than tempting them. Not that I’d have wasted arrows at that range, but by now they must’ve been curious about just who they were facing. I looked around for Bram and didn’t see him—must’ve been with Alison and the wounded—so I stayed put to wait for the enemy’s next move. They were quick about it.

The Ameliorite infantry marched back out into view and formed a line across the pass. From the center came three riders, mounted abreast, a white banner floating above them in the light breeze. Judging by how the sun glinted off their armor, they weren’t commoners, which meant they'd be serious about talking with us. I sent for Bram, making sure he knew it was important, but he still took his time arriving. By the time he’d made it to my position, the riders were within ten yards of us and reigned to a halt. I passed the word to remind the archers to hold their arrows, and turned to Bram, still sweaty and gore-splashed from the fighting.

“Well, bro’, do we honor their truce flag, or shoot them where they stand?” I wasn’t tempted to try shooting, even if it would let us kill some of their leaders, but wanted to see Bram’s reaction. On the off chance we lost this little war, I didn’t want to give them any excuse to not offer us a chance to surrender.

“Let us at least try to maintain the semblance of honor in these proceedings,” Bram responded, then noticed my grin and realized he’d been had. But he seemed bitter as he looked out at the three riders. “Let’s ride out to meet them, just you and I.”

I made arrangements to leave Anders in charge in case they were planning something, told the archers to let ’em have it if they tried anything and gave our men a clear shot, then borrowed a horse and rode out beside Bram. The two flanking riders seemed ordinary apart from their pricey ornaments, probably just typical knights of the realm, but the standard bearer stood out. He had short-cropped black hair and a haughty air of assumed command about him, and looked enough like Bram to be one of his countrymen for sure. But there was an important difference—this guy made no effort to hide the fact he was as dangerous as he looked, which was plenty. As we came closer, he looked us over and his eyes widened, but the expression was gone before I could figure what it meant. We reined in before him and when he spoke, it was with a bored tone.

“Am I then to deal with lackeys, or will you return and send back your leaders?”

I bristled at his tone and the answering smiles of the knights at his side, but Bram remained outwardly impassive and answered with enviable politeness. “Tell me, Richard, have you then risen so high you have left courtesy behind you?” His tone was light, but I knew him well enough to see just how tightly he was keeping himself under control. There was more here than I could understand.

“I reserve my courtesy, dear brother, for those who are neither rogues nor traitors. Do you propose to tell me you represent these dogs?” I pulled my jaw back up from where it had dropped, hoping they hadn’t noticed my reaction. That explained the resemblance, Bram’s clenched jaw, and the suddenly respectful looks from the two knights. Richard looked past us at our lines of men with an icy, contemptuous smile.

“I do indeed represent these men, as does my comrade Gareth.” The control in Bram’s voice was beginning to wear thin. “Now deliver your message or leave, whichever pleases you.” I cleared my throat, but Bram shot me a look that said ‘shut up’ in no uncertain terms.

“Very well, then. I have come to accept your surrender, under terms you are probably still familiar with.” I forced a laugh, glad to have him turn his attention on me. “For the benefit of your ill-favored colleague, I shall elaborate. If you surrender now, I will spare the lives of everyone who did not participate in the last skirmish, and nine of ten participants. The best of you will be encouraged to join Amelior's forces; the remainder will be disarmed and treated as honored prisoners.”

Ignoring Bram’s warning look, I spoke. “What about us?”

“As leaders, you will be tried by a military tribunal. As there are no officers of greater rank within a few days’ ride, I shall serve as judge.” The hard look in his eyes told me what that meant.

Bram’s reply was unexpectedly mild considering the anger glowing in his eyes. “For such a grave decision, we must first consult our men.” His control broke, then, and that anger showed in his voice as he turned and shouted back at our camp. “Men! This gracious knight has asked us if we are willing to surrender and join him. Shall we comply with this generous offer?” The answering jeers and laughter caused Richard to clutch at his sword, though he didn’t draw. Bram’s face hardened, taking on an unfamiliar dangerous look identical to the one I had just seen on his brother.

“I think you have your answer, brother.”

Richard spat on the ground at our feet. “Then, dear brother, let us hope we do not meet on the field of battle, for I know how little you would wish me to be guilty of fratricide.” Without another word, he wheeled his horse and rode off, followed belatedly by his escort. Without a word, Bram and I returned to our camp amidst a storm of cheers. But his silence told me Bram was thinking about what Richard had said, and I wanted to find out why when he gave me the chance.

***

Nothing else happened that day ’cause Amelior took the time we gave them to set up camp and plot their strategy for tomorrow. I spent my time with the men, making sure their wounds were tended and their equipment repaired or replaced. It was good to see Alison at work with the surgeons, ’cause even though she was pale, with vomit on one sleeve, it helped me believe she wasn’t just here for Bram’s sake, something I was still having trouble with. The mood in camp was light on the surface, but the laughter didn’t last long. It was nice to have drawn first blood, but a bloody nose never ended a fight, and a few of our fellows were missing when we sat to eat. That evening, I invited Bram over to my tent to discuss our own plans for the next while, and to get a few other answers. He was distracted, and he knew I'd noticed. We sipped our drinks in silence for a time.

“Still thinking about Richard?” He nodded. “You shouldn’t let it bother you. You’re both officers, so the chances of meeting in the field are pretty slim. You won’t have to worry about killing him, not that you should anyway—I’d wager one of our archers spots his fancy suit before we do and puts an end to your worries.” Bram took a large swallow of his drink and grimaced, but didn’t meet my eyes. “Besides, unless I miss my guess, he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to kill you, and that ought to ease your conscience if you have to kill him first.”

Bram raised his eyes, and I saw sorrow in his gaze. “It is never that simple, Gareth. A knight of Amelior seeks out a powerful foe to prove his valor. And Richard is too cautious and too well armored to let an archer take him other than by chance. Sometime in the next few days, the blood of my only brother may fall upon my hands. Directly or otherwise.”

Well, now I knew what was bugging him, even if I couldn’t guess what to do about it. “You can’t pick your relatives, Bram. You can pick the men you choose to call brother, though.” He looked away. “You think he’ll lose any sleep over you? I wouldn’t bet on it. He looked like he welcomed the chance to cut you up. That changes everything.”

“It changes nothing.” He drained his mug, then refilled it. “More important, it would make the upcoming battles a personal thing, not the cold and impersonal type of fight I need now.” He drained his mug, topping it up again with a shaking hand. I hid my surprise.

“Want to tell me more?”

No!

Another deep swig, and a long, painful silence. “Yes.”

His voice had grown quiet again, and he licked at his lips as if they’d gone dry. When he wiped his hand on his trouser leg, it was steady again. “I am afraid the story will sound familiar to you, however. Richard is my younger brother by little more than a year. In a family of the lesser Ameliorite nobility, that one year is as bad as never having been born at all: ordinarily, he could never inherit anything from our father save the family name and a few token gifts. Not while I lived, anyway, though I imagine my departure changed that. I was overjoyed to have a brother, someone to quarrel with and confide in. Someone to compete with. But that changed when we both learned how things would be, and one day he no longer wanted any of my ‘charity’. We Ameliorites are a proud people, Gareth. It must have been agony for him to see me succeed so well during my apprenticeship as a squire and later. Oh, he did well enough on his own, brought much credit to our family, but I had already done it better and done it first. Not an easy thing to live with.”

“I know you, bro’, you’d have tried to fix things. What happened?”

“He was too bitter. He must have thought I was condescending, or mocking him. Things got worse and worse between us, and we were no longer talking by the time I won my spurs. It hurt my parents, though they tried not to let it show. When our army took Kardmin and I gained my measure of infamy, it ended any hope of reconciliation. Richard fought valiantly in that campaign, I can assure you. But who was it that would be toasted, promoted, held up as a shining example to others?” Another deep draught of wine.

“Tough,” I sympathized, not meaning to sound so harsh. I’d been in the same kind of situation before, but a mercenary learns not to expect any recognition for his officer’s deeds. I wasn’t sure I felt all that sorry for Richard.

“Then something happened, as you already know. I left, betraying my nation, my family, and my own honor; I tell you, it was as if I tore out a part of myself, and had there not been so many emotions warring within me, I doubt I should have had the strength to do it. But difficult as it was for me, it can only have been worse for my brother and my family, and I cannot let myself imagine what my departure did to them. Instead of having to prove himself in my shadow, Richard was forced to redeem our family name after my treason.”

I had never asked Bram his family name, though once he had told me about his past, I’d known he was one of those who had one. Now was not the time to ask. “Evidently, someone was forgiving enough to look at Richard’s own record, and our father’s before that, else he would not be here now. So here I am, not pleased to be here in the first place and now even less pleased knowing I must add to my guilt by destroying all that my brother has achieved since I left. Or falling in combat myself, thus letting him win and betraying my new friends and loved ones.”

I sat for a minute and tried to find something to say. The silence dragged on until it became painful, but was mercifully interrupted by the arrival of a breathless messenger. I beckoned him to enter, and Bram pulled himself out of his mood long enough to listen.

“Sirs, I’ve got two bits of news. Our siege engines have arrived from town, and the engineers are waiting for your word to begin putting them together. Also, the enemy camp is holding a celebration. They're having a great time.” He sounded puzzled.

I sent him to instruct the engineers to begin assembling the siege engines under cover, then rounded on Bram as the messenger left. “A celebration? What’s your brother playing at? Trying to impress us with their morale?”

“Morale might explain it,” Bram replied, a little more alert. “His men need a chance to boast and revive their courage after their small defeat earlier today, and Richard will want to shake our confidence. He will stop soon enough to make sure his men are well rested for tomorrow. That would be my first guess.”

“Well, it doesn’t mean we have to let him get away with it. It’s time we taught your brother a little respect. I’ll send over men to teach them courtesy.” I looked to Bram for approval, but he sat thinking.

“Do that,” he said, “and for my own part, I think I will send a few men up the cliffs just in case we are doing my brother an injustice by attributing such simple motives to him.”

We parted, each off on his own mission.

***

We met again by the earthworks, each with his aides, and after sending a few scouts to be sure no crossbowmen had snuck close enough to snipe at our lines, we stood atop the piled earth and stone for a better view. Bram had asked for volunteers and sent a few dozen mountain-trained men up each side of the pass to guard any trails that might lead near our camp. The climb was difficult enough that few men would have tried it voluntarily, but the cliffs weren’t unclimbable, despite what the Belfalasians had claimed. The sky was still clear and the moon bright enough overhead they had an easy time of it, but it made things difficult for me. The crossbowmen I’d picked for my own inspection of the enemy camp would have to be careful if they expected to sneak close enough to do any damage without being seen.

The noises from the enemy encampment changed suddenly. The boisterous celebration was interrupted by screams and shouts as well placed bolts found their fire-silhouetted targets. I grinned in the darkness, chuckling as a fiery line arced through the darkness and vanished behind the cliff, bound for some flammable target. Any further screams were lost in the uproar, and under cover of the noise, the snipers withdrew. They arrived back at the camp to a warm welcome from everyone who was still awake. By the time we sent the men back to their tents, the noise downslope had ended for the night. I doubled our own watch, then went to get some rest myself after wishing Bram a good night.

***

I woke after moonset to the sound of distant yells and a faint clashing of blades. By the time I'd reached the guard posts, the situation was already well in hand. At the cliff base, an even dozen bodies lay in a pool of torchlight, black-clad and bloody. The guards were supporting one of Bram’s wounded cliff-climbers, while another saw me and saluted, alerting his fellows to my presence. Bram arrived moments later, as I was bending over the bodies, and it didn’t look like he’d been sleeping well.

“Sirs!” beamed the climber, pride in his voice. “We found a few of the enemy gone out for a moonlight stroll. When the moon went down, they must have lost their way and ended up here. They didn’t want to join us down here for a drink, but we insisted.” He continued, a little more seriously. “My men are still searching, but I’m sure we got them all. Only one casualty, too!” He clapped a hand on the shoulder of the bloodied but smiling man by his side. “But I’m afraid we weren’t able to take any prisoners.”

Bram stepped forward to congratulate the two climbers, then sent the unwounded one back up the cliff to order the other men to finish their search then call down to have themselves replaced. After examining the wounded man and sending him off to the surgeons, Bram pointed to the bodies and looked at me with anger in his eyes. “I am glad, Gareth, that we did not underestimate my bro... our enemy. These appear to be assassins—spies at the very least.”

That said, he turned and left, failing to notice the reaction of the guards to his slip of the tongue. I thought about telling them to keep quiet about what they’d heard, but realized how useless that would be. Instead, I ordered the bodies disposed of and returned to my tent, hoping the rumors wouldn’t spread too quickly.

***

We’d given orders to sound reveille early, and most of us had finished breakfast not long after dawn. Most ate little. I sought out Bram and found him with Alison and the wounded. I was just getting ready to blow my top at him for shirking his duties when Alison climbed onto a wagon loaded with the most seriously wounded. The walking wounded surrounded them, doing their best to pretend they hadn’t been listening to the conversation that ended as I walked up. Bram blew her a kiss as the wagon moved off.

He spotted me as I walked up behind him and gave me a restrained greeting, his eyes returning to the departing wagon every so often. “Good morning, Commander.”

“Morning. What’s going on here?”

“Simple, Gareth. Today, Richard will do his absolute best to push us back into the grasslands, and it may well be the decisive battle of this phase of the war. I hope we can hold them, of course, but I thought our wounded would be safer and would receive better care in Belfalas.” I suspected he meant that Alison would be safer there, though there was enough truth in what he’d said for me to take it at face value. The thing was, I wasn’t sure whether he believed what he’d said or was just making excuses. Maybe it didn’t matter why he’d sent her away, since you can’t make a woman into a warrior overnight, if ever, and she’d be a liability here if things went sour. At least with his mistress gone, Bram’d keep his mind on the enemy.

We stood together until the small caravan was out of sight, which didn’t take long in the murky light, then we returned to the barriers. Each of us sent for our armor and weapons, then we joined the crowd of men who were stamping their feet and chafing themselves to get warm. A muttered conversation stopped as we arrived, and far too many men shot curious looks at Bram. Word was already spreading about his brother. I shivered, knowing winter was well on its way and thinking that about the only advantage to being an officer was having a warmer tent to sleep in. Behind us, under cover of a rock outcropping, the engineers still worked on the siege engines. They must have spent the whole night there, and the buckets of pitch and smoldering pots of coals were there for destroying the weapons before the enemy got to them, not for the comfort of the workers. I sent an orderly to fetch them some of my personal stock of fortified wine, mulled to ease their chill, then climbed the earthworks to improve my view downhill. The activity in the part of Amelior's camp that I could see looked pretty similar to what was going on around us, and I was willing to bet we’d be getting visitors once the sun had risen enough to be out of their eyes.

Our armor arrived and as we dressed, we set about putting our troops in order. Another nice thing about being an officer is having someone warm your armor for you before you’ve got to put it on. Once I was dressed, I sent the archers to our flanks as Bram and I’d discussed earlier, and watched while sergeants began forming up their men into groups and taking their positions. Meanwhile, Bram had finished getting his own men in order and was standing by his horse, waiting. I hadn’t expected him to still be thinking about Alison, but I was still relieved to see his attention on the enemy and his preparations.

By the time the sun had risen high enough to be out of the eyes of the enemy soldiers, most of the dew was off the ground. When they were ready, their archers advanced first, covered by foot soldiers, each carrying something large that I couldn’t make out at this distance. I could see their cavalry ranked behind them, but keeping their distance. I guess they knew we still had plenty of arrows, and a warhorse cost too much to be used as arrow fodder. As they drew closer, the archers and their escorts moved off to the flanks, leaving the center to be held by swordsmen and axemen. It was a fairly standard tactic, but not necessary when you outnumber your opponent by more than two to one. Richard and his commanders must’ve spotted our pits by watching our retreat and were leery of attacking us along our fortifications.

As they drew closer, I could now see what had been so odd about the men with the archers. Each bowman’s escort was carrying deep, man-high shields, and as the archers came within range, the shield-bearers took up positions beside the archers. I gave the command, and our own bowmen fired their first volley. Even as the arrows arched downwards towards the advancing enemy, we launched a second volley, and began preparing a third. I watched, hoping to break their formation, but the shield-bearers interposed themselves in time to trap the first volley with their shields. A few men fell, but most arrows buried themselves deep in the oversize shields though not so deep they struck flesh.

A few more men fell to the second volley, but our archers were doing little damage. When the enemy drew closer, the shields would offer no protection against the arrows, whether because there would be no time to interpose them or because the arrows would pass straight through, but at long range, they offered enough protection. This cute little maneuver neutralized our range advantage, and Amelior soon began returning our fire.

I shouted curses, feeling helpless. If we concentrated our fire on the foot soldiers, our own bowmen would become targets, but if we kept firing at their archers, the infantry would arrive unscathed. I watched in frustration as the first rank of Ameliorite infantry broke into a run and reached our trenches. With very few exceptions, they took the safe paths between them. Richard hadn’t been here long yesterday, but he’d made good use of his time. I ordered our archers to concentrate their fire on any exposed archers to keep them from attacking our lines, then watched as the enemy closed with our heaviest armored troops at the center. Desperate men screamed raggedly to keep up their courage as they flung themselves at us, knowing as well as we did that the first wave is a throw-away gesture, something to use up our arrows and tire our sword arms. Swordfodder, they came at us expecting to be cut to pieces, their fighting that much more desperate because of it.

The first men to reach our waist-high earthworks bore short spears with long metal heads, and hurled these all at once before closing. Caught by surprise, the men at the wall raised their shields in defense. Most succeeded, but it was what they were expected to do. The few men with metal shields escaped unaffected, but the others found heavy, blunt-tipped spears embedded in the leather and wood bucklers they carried. To avoid being tied down by the shields, now awkward and unwieldy from the heavy, bent-tipped spears stuck in them, they were forced to cast the shields aside. This left them under-armored compared with the shock troops, who fell on them like wolves.

There was no time for me to be bitter, though I looked across to Bram and shot him a ‘we’ll talk about this later’ look for forgetting to take these tactics into account. He’d clearly known about them, and looked away, ashamed. As our front rank fell back under the impact of their first wave, I charged into battle myself. In a more typical battle, I’d have forced myself to stay back like any other commander, but I convinced myself that this situation was different; our morale had grown shaky from the unexpected and discouraging new tactics, and my presence would help shore up our lines. I hoped we’d be able to balance our lack of finesse with force and a better position. And that we’d hold them off long enough for me to tell Bram what I thought of his lovesick, preoccupied thinking.

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Chapter 14: Bram

I watched, unsurprised, as Amelior’s sophisticated tactics came into play. Irked though I was that Richard had anticipated us and adopted an approach that neutralized our defenses, I could not prevent myself from admiring how he overcame our many advantages and reached our position with the minimum possible losses. I readied our men, but remained dismounted until the time was right. While I waited, I looked over to where Gareth paced like a caged bear, helpless and grappling with a growing rage. At one point, he met my gaze, and there was such frustrated fury there that I looked away.

The disciplined battle lines vanished as soon as our two forces met, but our position was strong enough they could not break our line so long as our defense remained disciplined. After giving back at first, our men rallied about Gareth, who had flung himself into the fray like a berserker. The first shock troops, desperate though they were, could not hold him and his personal guard back, nor could they force a breach in our lines, and we pressed them back, moving steadily beyond the earthworks to prevent them from rallying. A renewed push from Gareth and his heavily armored center forced them farther back, and some fell into the shallow trenches. In the gap thus created, small knots of Ankurites pressed through and attacked the Ameliorite archers; forced to choose between exposing themselves to our bowmen and standing to fight infantry at close range, they retreated, but with predictable discipline.

By then, Amelior’s superior numbers had begun to push Gareth back towards our lines, and those of his men who had made it out past the trenches were in imminent danger of being cut off. As it began to look like our center would collapse, I nodded to the trumpeters, who blew the ‘ready’ signal. Behind me, my riders mounted and waited with growing impatience; beside me, the standard bearer checked once to be sure we were all ready, then looked to me for permission. Again, I nodded, and he sounded a certain call on his horn. As one, the cavalry of Ankur put spurs to our mounts.

Gareth’s fighters gave back onto safe ground, as we’d practiced, and we charged through the narrow gap they opened for us. As intended, we passed unimpeded through the scattered enemy soldiers at the forefront of the battle who'd surged ahead of their fellows to pursue Gareth, and struck the main force concentrated behind them. Richard had not wanted to allow us this tactic again, but our position forced his hand. Our charge tore a wide swath in the enemy ranks, throwing men backwards and sideways and making room for the second wave of lancers to pass through us and strike deeper into the mass of enemy troops. A part of me rejoiced to see my men functioning so efficiently as a unit; another part, one that I had nurtured in the years since Kardmin, quailed and drew away from what it was seeing. As the charge faltered, we could no longer hold formation, so we dropped the lances we no longer had room to use and drew other weapons.

Even as my own sword came clear, I craned my neck for any signs of a countercharge. There was none, presumably because Richard dared not charge uphill into our archers or into the dense mass of his own men, who continued to form a thick buffer between the Ameliorite knights and our position. The Ameliorites rallied, but the press of bodies gave them little room to maneuver and they had no support from pikemen or archers; fortunately for us, Richard had studied Belfalas well enough to anticipate no need for such troops. In consequence, they could not prevent us from regrouping as they gave ground and going collectively to the aid of those of my men who had been cut off when our charge lost its momentum. Slowly at first, then with ever greater speed, we began to drive them backwards, the enraged warhorses not letting any man come near enough to drag a mounted man from his saddle. Some men were forced back into the pits, trying to avoid the spikes below, while others faced archers and a few slingers behind the earthworks.

The next ten minutes passed unnoticed, save that by their end, Amelior fled in disorder and I had to ride out to cut off those of our men who broke discipline and pursued them. A part of me was sickened by the slaughter and craved an ending, but in all honesty, it was concern for my own men that most motivated me. I knew well it would be a mistake to move far enough into the field to draw out Richard’s knights. I could see them now, preparing to come after us, and it made the recall that much more urgent.

Both sides withdrew to lick their wounds. For my own part, my wounds were confined to bruises, though my heavy armor had taken a beating. Once we were confident the situation was under control, we sent men to seek among the dead and dying; I had given orders to save those they could and grant easing to those too badly hurt to survive. It was no different from the triage we practiced with our own wounded, and it was an undoubted mercy, but it still left an ache in the pit of my stomach that we could resort to such a cold evaluation of our fellow men's worth: if there was nothing more to life than this brief period of consciousness, what right did we have to take those last moments from any man, even in the name of mercy?

Necessity made us loot the slain for their equipment, but disheartened and preoccupied, I turned a blind eye to other looting. Enemy survivors were stripped of weapons and equipment, and set free to return to their own camp (if they were wounded and could walk), carrying any of their fellows too badly wounded to make their own way downhill. We had discussed this matter earlier, and decided that we lacked the manpower to hold any significant number of healthy prisoners, for we could not risk an escape behind our lines, and I had no stomach for killing men who had surrendered. When these labors were proceeding, I left junior officers in command and went to find Gareth.

By the time I found him, a white flag had appeared downslope, and three riders again rode forth. I found my adopted brother resting behind the lines, taking advantage of the temporary calm to bandage his many small wounds as well as a larger one in his thigh. Grimly, without saying anything, he summoned a horse and mounted, not trying to hide the pain as his injured leg took his weight. Side by side, we rode out past the piled bodies of the fallen to meet the coming riders.

Richard looked almost pleased as he reigned in before us and surveyed the battlefield with no haste. His warhorse grew skittish as it smelled the fresh blood, but he brought it under control broadside to us, and looked us over with restrained amusement. When he chose to speak, his tone was every bit as light as his manner.

“Most impressive, brother. I find myself gladdened to see your long exile among these primitives,” he made a sweeping gesture towards the Belfalasians and Ankurites, “has not softened you... unduly. You are still the same man you were at Kardmin.” I stiffened in my saddle, unnoticed, for his attention had gone to Gareth, who he appraised with studied insolence. “I am also relieved to note that you and your... comrade?... have survived in reasonably intact condition. I trust you are unwounded?”

Gareth snarled at Richard’s blunt inference and began to draw his sword before I reached across and placed a restraining hand on his sword arm. With an effort, he controlled himself, but he threw off my arm with an angry gesture and his look promised quick death for Richard as soon as circumstances permitted.

“As always, I am unscathed.” In point of fact, besides the countless bruises beneath my beaten armor, several cuts I had not noticed continued to bleed and would need cleaning and stanching. “I trust you survived the melee equally unharmed?” I watched the barb sink home, erasing his smile and conjuring up an unpleasant grin from Gareth. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this social call?”

“I propose an alternative to this senseless and costly slaughter. As you know, we have you outnumbered with our advance force alone—”

Gareth interrupted Richard’s speech. “Indeed you do. If you count your horses and the many parasites that afflict them, you put our own poor beasts to shame. And I’m sure your own beasts more than compensate for anything you lack personally.”

Gareth’s words were unsubtle, perhaps, but although Richard continued as if he had heard nothing, a tinge of red came to his cheeks. “—and we shall inevitably defeat your own small force here. You may continue to hold out for a time, but our main body of troops will soon arrive and render the matter academic.”

“Very true,” I riposted, “if you are so naive as to believe that only the forces of Belfalas oppose you, or that you see before you the sum of your foes. But please continue, what of your alternative?”

Richard’s control cracked for an instant, and I suspected he had not considered the possibilities I had just implied. It seemed his spies had not yet reported the full strength of his opposition. Then the mask slipped back into place, concealing whatever thoughts swam beneath it. “I propose a duel. Between my army’s champion and yours. Or between you and me, if you have the stomach for it.”

“As you well know, Richard, I do not. My sins against our parents are already too heavy to bear without the added burden of fratricide.”

“More to the point,” interjected Gareth, who had regained his control, “the idea of pitting one of ours against one of yours doesn’t strike me as the smartest way to decide the fate of a kingdom. And when we win, I doubt your men would honor the deal.”

“Your impertinence does you credit, sirrah.” Richard’s hand went to his sword. “I begin to wonder whether your blade does you as good service.”

Gareth smiled his own deadly grin and moved his hand back to his sword. I interjected before things escalated beyond my control. “Nay, brother, the matter ends here. While I have no doubt of your own sworn word, I cannot vouch for those who would follow you; you speak of resolving a personal quarrel, not the larger conflict that has reunited us, and neither of us can afford such a luxury. I fear you shall be obliged to remove us from this pass by force of arms, not by individual combat.”

With a feral grin, Richard let his white banner of truce drop to lie upon the trampled, bloodstained ground. Without a word, he wheeled his horse about and galloped back to his own lines, followed by his escort.

***

Having failed to crack our position in a single swift blow, Richard and his staff paused to plan in more detail; we had been tested to determine whether we merited this, and had not been found wanting. They now had the information they needed to arrive at a more appropriate strategy. The delay while they planned would give us the rest of the day to ourselves. Posting a watch, Gareth and I left to have our wounds tended to. By sunset, our two small siege engines had been completed, and as shadows began to descend from their mountain eyries, crews set about clearing a path to the earthworks for the small catapults. I expected to do no real damage other than to the enemy’s morale; such engines of war are only truly practical for battering down city walls, and that is all they will ever be used for. But here, we could at least ruin the sleep of Richard’s men and sow the seeds of doubt. After all, armies carried siege engines with them only when they intended to besiege or defend a town, and perhaps this would lead Richard to suspect a larger trap behind us. I doubted he would believe that we had thrown up any true fortification, since his original spies had undoubtedly returned from Belfalas not long before our departure to report clear passage, but a wooden stockade supported by greater earthworks was not impossible. In any event, the siege engines might confer a slight edge on the morrow, and that was my sole hope for their use. Fear and ignorance can sometimes do what force of arms alone cannot.

Thus it was that I fell asleep, missing Alison all the more for having come so far with her. The periodic thwok! of the catapult’s arm, the sinister whistle of the rock’s swift travel, and the muffled crash as it fell to earth in or near their camp all kept me from sleep for a time.

I had given no orders to choose the enemy position as the target, for I could not bring myself to attack the men in their sleeping rolls in such a dishonorable manner and their camp was out of sight around the bend in the pass, but they were not privy to this knowledge and I doubted they would be soothed. Despite the void at my side, and the deeper void inside me, I finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell into a deep sleep.

***

The light of dawn shining through the tent's opaque canvas was what woke me, and I lay still, disoriented and half awake. The intermittent beat of the catapults had ceased, and I forced myself back to alertness, chasing sleep far away. I rose and dressed, ignoring stiff muscles and the pain of several small wounds, then went in search of Gareth. I found him with the surgeons, where the remains of those who had died overnight lay in a small pile, frozen by death and the night’s chill. Gareth was already doing what I had intended, arranging for our remaining wounded to be sent back to Belfalas. When he had done, we returned to the earthworks to view the results of the night’s work. The catapults had been withdrawn, since they would be of no use during the day’s battle.

All around us, men observed the archetypal rituals that had been observed before every battle in our long, turbulent history, uneasy minds seeking a focus to distract them from what lay ahead. Some men performed the painstaking, last-minute verification of weapons and armor, going over what had already been examined too often. Others stood awkwardly, looking downslope, hands clenching and unclenching, fear plain in their eyes, or cast their gaze restlessly about, as if seeking a solace unknown to them. A very few, mostly older men who were veterans of other campaigns, played at cards or dice without paying much attention. Here and there, small groups of men sat with clasped hands and renewed oaths that were old before my people reached Amelior. As for me... well, I had my duties to distract me, and the strength of two bloodoaths to sustain me.

When we reached the barriers, my first thought was that Amelior had withdrawn, for only the remains of a few campfires still smoldered where their camp had been. But a few more wisps of smoke from behind a shielding rock face caught my eye, eloquent of morning cook fires, and I realized they had moved their camp farther downslope, out of range of our projectiles.

“I’ve got an idea, bro’.” Gareth’s grinned a lopsided grin. “Today they won’t be just feeling us out like yesterday; today pays for all. What say we carry the battle to them instead?”

I smiled. “Out of the question, Gareth. We withstood yesterday’s assault well enough, but today’s will carry on longer, with everything Richard has to throw at us. There will be no holding back of reserves now he knows our strength. You mistake him if you think that yesterday’s engagement was anything more than a test; Richard knows what to look for and will have a very good chance of beating us today if we fail to take full advantage of our position. Our only hope is to wait for them here and meet them on our terms.”

“I’m not that sleepy, Bram. I meant that we should move first when they come to us, not let them take us on their own terms. When they try that trick with the big shields and the long metal spears...”

“Mantlets and javelins,” I corrected.

“Yeah, ‘mantlets and javelins’. Pity you didn’t think to warn us about those yesterday. What I was saying was we should hit them hard with cavalry and infantry when they try that trick again. That’ll send them reeling, and we can withdraw back under cover when they start to run again. If we keep our pikemen in plain sight, he still won’t dare to bring up his knights.” I let his comment about the javelins pass, unsure what he was getting at but recognizing he was still bothered by them.

“I doubt it will be so simple as that. But it is a risky, and thus unorthodox, move, and Richard will not have anticipated that possibility. He will still be loth to maneuver his own pikemen this close to our bowmen, so we should be granted one more charge.” I grinned. “All right, we shall try it. But you had best not wait long before you move in your men or we may not leave any of them for you to fight.” I pounded him on the back and went to prepare my own men.

***

For a wonder, things went largely as planned. Richard advanced in much the same order as on the previous day, which was sensible; over time, those tactics would eventually defeat us. However, this time we carried the battle to them. While our archers sent cautious volleys of arrows at Amelior’s archers to keep them under cover of their mantlets, Gareth’s infantry attacked the enemy center at a run. As soon as they had moved far enough beyond the earthworks to leave us space, I led a cavalry charge from our right flank, keeping an unusually large amount of space between riders. We approached the enemy archers at an oblique angle, so that we came between them and our own archers only at the last possible instant; thus, any enemy archer who tried to loose a shaft at us exposed himself to return fire from our own bowmen.

As I had anticipated, the distance remained large enough that Amelior still managed two volleys of arrows into our ranks before we reached them, and several of our men went down to arrow fire, either injured or falling with their wounded horses. But the spacing between riders was wide enough there was time to jump or go around fallen horses, so we lost no riders to collisions. Then, before they had time to ready a third volley, the speed of our approach presented them with an unpleasant choice. A third volley would indeed have felled many of our riders at such close range, but then we would have been upon them. Fleeing, on the other hand, might take them behind the cover of their own infantry, who were about to encounter Gareth’s charge.

Archers are unused to close combat, and ill-equipped for melee, and each of their protectors was aware the mantlets that protected them against arrows would provide no protection against lances. We had gambled this would cause them to break formation and flee, and that is indeed what they did. Their leaders wisely sounded a retreat, even as their formation had begun to break on its own, but they were on foot and we were moving too fast for all of them to escape. We passed through their faltering ranks, riding down dozens of them and lancing dozens more, then wheeled about and returned before they could reform to oppose us effectively. By the time we made our return pass, their retreat had broken down completely. Their infantry might have come to their defense, but Gareth’s men had met the enemy lines, and in the first moments after that contact, all the ordered formations dissolved once more into the melee's chaos.

We wrought what havoc we could among the archers, while Gareth’s men stood firm against the enemy, holding their ground but not advancing against the enemy’s greater numbers. In the end, it was those greater numbers that once again saved us, for Richard could not bring his own knights to bear on us without riding down his own men. Such an attack from two sides would have crushed the infantry’s resistance, so Richard held off.

The battle lasted longer than the previous day’s encounter, but our ability to turn our cavalry against them let us break the momentum of their advance and throw them back. Though we began to push them back, we could not afford a pursuit because Richard’s cavalry had moved up and were waiting for any gap to open in their packed troops so they could pass through and confront us. It took almost twenty minutes of intense fighting before Amelior’s troops broke and ran. When I saw signs that a gap large enough to admit their cavalry was imminent, I sounded the retreat. We returned safely, though it was a very near thing indeed, and Richard broke off his hasty charge as soon as the first arrows began falling among his men. Apart from two men who ignored the recall and died with their horses shot out from beneath them, his knights escaped unscathed. I remember few other details of that hand to hand combat, other than losing my first mount to an arrow and fighting on foot until my men came to my rescue and I could ride pillion.

By noon, our wounded had been attended to and the dead had been piled downslope.

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Chapter 15: Gareth

I’d been surprised and worried when Bram returned riding behind one of his men, but other than some bloodstains, he didn’t look damaged too badly. Besides, I was too busy dealing with the mess after the battle to worry about him if he was still able to ride. I didn’t get a chance to go looking for him until early afternoon, but when I did, I found him at the corral choosing a new horse. Several had returned without their riders.

“Getting lonely already?” I asked.

He grinned back and made a rude gesture. “Just doing some matchmaking. I think that bay mare over there has got her eye on you. She should be able to keep you busy until we make it home.”

“Only ’till then? I think I’m insulted.”

He laughed, then got serious all of a sudden. Guess he knew how something was still bothering me, and truth be told, I hadn’t forgotten we had business to talk about. Something we hadn’t had the time or energy to argue out before.

“What is bothering you, Gareth?”

I looked around and was glad to see we were alone except for a guard. I motioned to him to get lost before replying. “Yeah, bro’, something’s wrong. I’ve been thinking maybe you’ve gotten too involved with that Alison and it’s affecting your edge.”

Bram scowled, unfriendly as I’d ever seen him. “Jealous?”

“Not in that way; everybody’s got something that helps them fight, whether it be liquor, love of country, or lust for pay, and you’ve got your little charm to help you. Maybe I am jealous.” I found that I was, just a bit, which was worth thinking about. “But more important, I think you’ve been spending so much time thinking about her you’re forgetting to pay attention to what’s going on here.” I waved back over my shoulder towards the earthworks.

“I wish I were able to forget. What are you getting at?” There was a growing suspicion in his voice I didn’t like at all. It never pays to criticize a friend’s woman, even if she deserves it, but sometimes you’ve just got to speak your mind.

“I’m getting at the fact that you’ve been sloppy. Before you brought that girl up here—a mistake in itself, let me remind you—you’d never have forgotten to plan for Amelior’s obvious tactics. The guys shielding the archers, the javelins, and only you know what you’ll forget next. You know as well as I do those mistakes could’ve killed us all. We were lucky, bro’, but I don’t want to count on being lucky again.”

Bram had begun an angry reply, but stopped, an awkward look growing. “Gareth, did I really do all that badly? Have I been dreaming my way through all of this?”

My own anger began easing. He’d woken up. “Bloody right you have, and you did forget! If John were here, you’d be working for Amelior again in a minute.”

“I am truly sorry, Gareth. I suppose she does mean more to me than I had thought, but there is more to it than that alone. There is the matter of my brother, for instance. But you are right: I must pay more attention to our situation rather than just reacting to events. Help me, brother: if you see me drifting again, you have my permission to kick my sorry behind into next year.”

“I’m tempted right now. ‘Bay mare’, my ass!” We both laughed awkwardly, not meeting each other’s gaze.

“I suppose you could be right. The grey does look to be the better match."

I punched him hard in the shoulder.

"But seriously,” he continued, “we will have to get back to Belfalas soon, mares or not. Say in the next two or three days.”

“Two days? But that would mean...”

“Leaving today, yes.” He took me by the arm, leading me away from the horses as if our argument had been forgotten already. “Who was it that just reminded me to pay attention? We barely held them today.”

Barely? We had ’em running for their mothers!”

“Granted, which just goes to show that Richard still has time on his side and doesn’t want to waste his men by forcing an engagement that might prove too costly. By running away without pushing things to a conclusion, he fatigues us, holds us pinned here in the pass, and delays the inevitable by no more than another day or two. Were I him, I would consider committing all his forces tomorrow to crush us and secure a certain but expensive victory, but in the end, I would opt for a less costly solution. Their reinforcements should arrive within another few days at most, and those men will be the best of their expeditionary forces that Amelior has to offer now that Arden is secure. Once they arrive, Richard can sit back and throw wave after wave of men at us until we grow too tired to hold up our heads. That, my friend, would have us running to our mothers, provided we retained enough stamina to run at all.

“Richard pushed just hard enough to break us today, in case we should err and grant him an easy victory, but in the end, he pushed no harder than necessary. Tomorrow’s fight will be a repeat of today’s; his goal will be to tire us further, keep us on edge, and sap our numbers and our vigor. For now, our position and relative freshness give us the advantage we need to hold on. But we are tiring, and even today we were not tested as we soon shall be. I suppose that when it comes right down to it, we may have been too optimistic about our plans to hold them in this pass for a week. I believe we must leave now if we expect to have any reasonable hope of saving our men for the battle at the river.”

I’d forgotten the problem with letting Bram think without any distractions: he inevitably out-thought me. I was so busy criticizing him—maybe I was jealous of Alison!—that I’d forgotten to take my own advice and pay attention. I don’t like to retreat for anyone, let alone someone I’d beaten two days running.

“So we’ll leave tonight?”

“This afternoon. The cavalry will remain behind to make it appear that we are more confident than we are. As if we intend to wait them out. Your job will be to keep the men marching until at least midnight, a forced march with the lightest packs you can take without being forced to eat the stragglers to keep up your strength. I will be behind you, fighting a rearguard action when and if that becomes necessary, but mostly I shall try to convince Richard we are leading him into a trap. Richard must still half suspect that we have a fortification not far down the pass, perhaps just out of sight, and he is patient and cautious enough to take his time if he sees us running; my brother is not the sort of man to rush into a possible trap on the slight chance he might catch us and crush us before his reinforcements arrive. He knows that time is on his side whether we stay or whether we turn and run.”

He paused and looked thoughtful. “I want you to meet up with Rothsbane’s forces, so send a rider now to alert them. If everything works out all right, we should be halfway home before Richard even knows we are missing.”

“You’re sure you can hold them?”

“I have done so before to a Goblin army, while serving Amelior. The trick is to make it look like you are leading your pursuers into a trap... hang back and tease them just enough to tip them off that you want to be followed. Their own fears do the rest. If we look like we believe it, so will they. Remember that they have already received several unwelcome surprises, not the least being that Belfalas is no longer fighting on its own. With any luck, they no longer trust the intelligence gathered by their spies, and that will be just one more reason for Richard to be wary.” He looked contemplative. “It will work until Richard remembers we had the same tutors and figures out my ploy. Then we will pay the price.”

“How do you plan to cross the river with Richard in hot pursuit?”

“Rothsbane will link his cavalry with ours when we get near enough. The archers and pikemen can cover us as we embark; the only Ameliorites who can follow closely enough to threaten us will be cavalry, not infantry, and they will not be foolish enough to charge pikemen, particularly since they have no knowledge of how poorly trained ours are. It should be simple enough, I imagine. By now, every Belfalasian on this side of the river has harvested what he can and is well on his way to the city or a tributary town far to the south or north, so there will be no problem with civilians.” We’d arrived at his tent, and he bowed as he swept aside the tent flap for me. When we’d sat down, he poured the wine and we toasted each other a few times before I had to begin getting ready to leave. I downed the last of my wine and cast the mug aside.

“And I suppose you expect me to go through with this and let you do the noble thing? To carve your name in the legends while I wear out another pair of boots and another group of men? No,” I interrupted his reply, “don’t answer that one. I have learned something about leading an army while you were standing around daydreaming.” I rose and turned to go, stopping at his call.

“Gareth? Thank you for understanding. A speedy and safe return.”

“Think nothing of it. Your type’s never satisfied just being friends with a woman, and even an idiot like me should've known better than to expect otherwise. You can’t change the color of a horse, after all.” I saluted him sarcastically, pushed through the tent flap, and left, resisting the urge to look back.

***

Within a few hours, we were on the road again. Our camp was located on the backside of the hump at the top of the pass, so we were below the line of sight of any Ameliorite looking posts. That let us steal away in small groups without tipping them off about our plans. We joined up again further down the pass and followed the few supply wagons we could afford to take until we caught up with them. Just to be on the safe side, I posted scouts ahead and behind. You never know for sure, and if Bram's brother was half as smart as he was, we weren’t the only ones capable of surprises.

It was good to travel light for a change, just my most important gear, my weapons and armor, and the food in my pack. We started out towing along the catapults and everything else we didn’t want to leave for the enemy to use, but we were careful to destroy them once we got far enough away they wouldn't see the smoke. After that, it was just our own weight pulling us downhill. I set a moderate pace I could keep up for hours even with my leg wound, and called short rest halts before anyone got too tired. The men griped about turning tail and running, but none of it sounded too convincing. They knew the score, and the realities of wounds and missing friends had erased that first burst of excitement and overconfidence. The griping was a good sign ’cause it meant they were awake and alive. By tomorrow, out on the flat land, those who still had enough breath would sing a different song.

As I walked, I watched the sky. Big grey clouds were moving in from the east, and I was ready to bet we’d be having a grandmother of a storm pretty soon. Another good reason to leave now, before the weather turned. Up here, we’d get a mess of snow, though it’d just be rain further downhill. I tried to avoid the thought of Bram riding through a foot or two of wet snow, and didn't quite succeed. I was glad I only had my own two feet to worry about, nice though it would’ve been to have made this trip on someone else’s four feet. It was good to know that, bad as snow would be for us, traveling light, it would be far worse for a fully supplied army.

Despite what Bram’d said, I still wasn’t happy about leaving. Retreat’s fine if you’ve got a secure city at your back, or if you’ve got no face to save. We had no safe city anywhere nearby, and after the last two days, we had a reputation to protect. It rankled having to back down this early. The fact that it made sense didn’t make it any easier to accept.

***

We moved into darkness early ’cause of the clouds, so I ordered torches to be lit. A small luxury, but better than breaking an ankle on unseen obstacles. Besides, we were far enough from the action we couldn’t be seen and we wouldn't be able to say that tomorrow. Everyone had figured out we were on a forced march by now, what with the lightened loads and the walking in the dark, so I confirmed it for them by ordering no dinner until our next stop. After a brief meal, we went on again, stopping around midnight when we ran out of things to burn and most of us were too tired to curse when we tripped and fell. But we’d made it to the foothills, and that was good enough to let me call a halt.

I pulled in the scouts and posted watches on a short rotation so everyone could get some sleep, expecting Bram to come riding up at any moment even though I knew he’d have waited ’till at least nightfall to be safe. I also knew he’d be moving not much faster than we were ’cause he couldn’t afford to break any horses in the dark. You can carry a wounded buddy, but not a horse, and your buddy will at least heal up eventually. Bram wouldn’t even want to think about that, ’cause he couldn’t afford to double up his riders. Me, I was tired enough that despite my buzzing thoughts and aching thigh, I had no need of my hipflask to get to sleep.

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Chapter 16: Bram

Apart from a skeleton guard, rotated hourly, we slept through the rest of that afternoon. It was a poor sleep, though, for every man knew well that we would have precious little rest during the next few days. That knowledge made the brief interlude of peace precious, if less than restful.

Towards sunset, my orderly came to wake me. Early though it was, the darkness had already begun to make itself felt, thanks to the high-piled cloud masses moving in from the east. I stood watching the clouds flowing in, stretching out the cramps from an uncomfortable bed and the evening’s growing chill. My wounds ached less than my bones and muscles, but there was much around me to distract my attention from such minor things. Though ponderous as mountains, the clouds floated softly as cottonwood seeds, closing us ever more tightly beneath a downy grey roof. It was a rare moment of beauty.

When I had stretched out my kinked muscles, I readied the men and selected the youngest and best-rested for the dubious honor of staying behind to keep the campfires going. This done, we rode off in small groups at sufficiently wide intervals to camouflage our noise and to keep down the amount of dust we might raise. As the last light of a glorious sunset faded behind the cloud-swathed peaks, we slowed our pace and let the horses choose their own relaxed paths through the deepening darkness. Feeble traces of moonlight broke through gaps in the overcast now and then, picking out armor and silhouetting faces and forms.

At long last I judged we had come far enough to be out of sight of any Ameliorites posted on the cliffs as spies. I whistled a signal and in moments the pass was lit by flickering torchlight, flames twisting and dancing in the cloud-born breeze. I hoped we had come far enough, which was not a certain thing, even though we were long out of sight of our own camp. That was no longer so important, though, for the thickening cloud cover had extinguished the last light and we had been fortunate to have come so far without incident. But luck is an untrustworthy ally, and as we could afford no injuries, we needed light to proceed.

The torchlight eased our way enough that we began making up for lost time. I sent our few mountain men ahead of us as scouts, and sent others to the rear to warn of any problems. This done, we rode on, hoping things had gone as well for Gareth and his men.

***

Towards dawn, I called a halt. The men and horses both needed a rest, even though we had begun our retreat by resting all afternoon. Physical fatigue merged with the growing weight of apprehension and the sure knowledge we were drawing near the end of our period of grace and that the pursuit would soon begin. Hovering over us like the clouds above, the enemy's nearness kept eyes turning backwards, shoulders stiffened against the impact of a sniper’s arrow. It was not a logical feeling, but one borne on the wings of night and the tides of fatigue, and the two fed on each other and on us. We had passed old signs of Gareth’s camp, which meant he was on the march once more, and I was pleased to see him keeping so far ahead of us.

A few men were still awake enough to be drafted for guard duty, and I set them to their task with instructions to change the guard every hour so everyone could sleep. Along with the remainder of my force, I dozed until hoofbeats from upslope announced the arrival of our rearguard. I rose, weary, to take their report.

Evidently, we had left not a moment too soon. Soon after we passed out of sight of the camp, the enemy’s long-awaited reinforcements arrived amidst much commotion. There was, of course, no way of determining their numbers, but I was nonetheless glad to have avoided a confrontation with fresh troops. I complimented the men on their work, sent them off to their bedrolls, and tried to sleep myself. The hunt would soon be up, and we foxes would have little time to rest once that happened.

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Chapter 17: Gareth

Up before dawn, we ate our breakfast cold and hard while we marched under a leaden sky.

Our sleep had been short, but even a little rest does wonders for the average footslogger. We’re not pampered like the horse boys, so it doesn’t take as much to please us. The level of grumbling, spitting, and cursing told me that no one was suffering too much yet, so I increased our pace, our breath steaming and mist rising under our boots.

By noon, we were out of the foothills and into a warmer part of the world. Even the draft horses perked up, and we picked up the pace again as we came onto level ground and a clearer road. The sky began to lighten, and before long we could see the river coming closer across the plains. It began to look like Bram had been right again.

Maybe.

The fields that surrounded the road had already been harvested and the stubble burned, though there was still a belt of browning waist-high grass on the river's far side. Philip had been at work. By being selective about where he’d burned, he’d ensured that we’d see a tall plume of dust—like the one we were raising behind us—from any approaching army. Also, the dry grasses surrounding the town could be torched whenever the siege began, and I was looking forward to that.

Not long afterwards, our forward scouts came back with news of our city friends. I was surprised—who’d have thought that old Ratsbane would be smart enough to come riding to meet us on such short notice? I sent a man to tell the bastard we were coming on strong, which was mostly true, and to remind him of Bram’s plans. We kept up our march, the river drawing closer even as we got more and more tired. With luck, we’d arrive by nightfall and be safe before Richard’s boys even left the mountains. My calluses would appreciate the rest.

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Chapter 18: Bram

By the time we had entered the foothills, I knew we were being followed. One of our rearguard rode in with news that they had seen an advancing dust cloud from one of our preselected vantage points. Ahead, Gareth’s own plume stood tall in the still air over the burned fields. I was pleased for Richard's sake that he had caught on to my plans, but at the same time I was apprehensive about having to fight him before Gareth reached safety. Out here on the plains, it was his kind of battle, and he would have the advantage of using fresher men from among his reinforcements to run us down.

If my estimates were right, Richard would have sent his own knights ahead in hopes of taking us in the rear while we were in full retreat. That should, if I had calculated right, place him less than a half day behind us, and getting closer, with his main body of troops half a day or more behind them. We’d sent such horse armor as we had along with Gareth, on packhorses, and our unbarded horses should have recovered before the Ameliorites came into view. If we retired into the foothills to rest, my cavalry might even be somewhat fresh, or at least fresh enough for a little night work. It began to look like our pursuers would reach our present position just after nightfall and be forced to make camp to avoid riding into an ambush. If they were in the least bit careless from fatigue, that plan could work to our advantage.

We withdrew, leaving Belfalasian scouts in choice positions, and following others to a secure hiding place the scouts had identified before we entered the mountains.

***

I lay on my belly atop the knoll, gazing down on their camp. Nearly a thousand men were camped atop a long ridge flanked by a steep-sided gully on either side. Of these, fewer than half were knights, the cream of Amelior’s chivalry in the Eastcountry, while the other half were squires and various other personal attendants. By no means the sum total of Amelior’s riders, they were still at least five times the fewer than two hundred I could count on my side, and that included a mere fourscore experienced knights amidst my young cavalry.

But although their campsite was well chosen and there were alert guards posted, my brother had made a classic mistake in his arrogance. Expecting us to flee further in an attempt to reach the security of Belfalas, which we should indeed have done by all logic, he assumed we would not attack him in any force, if at all. Thus, he had carried only the minimum of armor and weapons he would need to ride us down on the morrow, and had not given the order to use no campfires. In the light of their cook fires, we were able to memorize the entire layout of his encampment, and note the lack of anything resembling fortification. For the brief length of time I intended to visit, those superior numbers would therefore mean little. I crept backwards until the hilltop cut off my view, then rose and returned to my men. A gentle breeze tousled my hair, blowing on my back then switching to carry my scent almost towards the enemy. My men gathered at the hand signals from our sentries, and I gave them a quick, detailed briefing on the situation and my intentions.

“I know how tired you all are”—I was more than a little fatigued myself despite the afternoon’s rest—“and I will not think the less of any man who chooses not to accompany me. Any who wish to do so may leave now, without any shame, and return to Belfalas to bring word of our actions. If we fail tonight, you will be needed there.” I waited, but other than the creak of harness and the slow, restless shuffling of many feet, there came no sound.

“Thank you.”

For a moment, a warm feeling of belonging cleared away my fatigue. “All right, then. You will follow me straight up the road and up the ridge leading into their camp. Be careful; the ridge is narrow and steep-sided. We will ride the length of the camp or until our charge falters, doing as much damage as possible, then ride straight out again without lingering. If we can do so, we should release or panic their horses, but I want no one killed trying. Our rendezvous will be here, and from this point we will move on as I explained earlier.

"You men,” I pointed out the small group of men who carried light crossbows in addition to their lances, “must slay the guards on the approach to their camp to clear a path for our charge. Retreat as soon as you have succeeded, and take up the positions we discussed to cover our retreat. If you can do so, stay long enough to discourage any pursuit, but loose no more than two volleys with your crossbows... I want you alive, not dead heroes. As for the rest of us, we can expect them to be wary and perhaps even ready for us: the wind is blowing randomly now, and will alert their horses to the presence of our own mounts long before the guards notice us. Are there any questions?”

Teeth gleamed white in the occasional light from the sky, but there were no questions. “Time to go then. Luck be with us all.”

We mounted in silence and rode at a walk until we could see their camp by firelight. On the soft hillsides, we made scant noise and were scarcely louder on the road itself. When we had reached the correct position, I paused our advance long enough to let our snipers reach their position, then I raised my hand and brought it chopping down in the agreed upon signal. A horse whinnied and was answered from the camp, but we were already moving fast. A commotion began by the fires as the sound of our charge reached their ears, and groggy men began climbing to their feet throughout the camp as we hit the ridge, war cries shrilling through the night.

There was something surreal about that fight. Scattered gaps appeared in the clouds, revealing starlit sky, and the bright moon silvered faces and the land where they were not gilded by the firelight. Around me, silvered figures moved upslope, uplifted swords and straining faces monochromed; before me, the brave but doomed figures of the surviving guards were limned all in bronze. Those few who ran for their horses, darting in and out of the firelight and amidst their frantic companions, seemed like animals fleeing a fire.

That was the image graven in my mind as the last few guards in our path, trying to bar our way with grounded lances, instead fell to an unexpected flurry of crossbow bolts from both flanks. Swords flashed golden at the first few men able to intercept us, horses and men screamed, then we were past the trampled corpses of the guards and deep into the camp. Ahead, knots of order began to appear, crumbling into disorder again as we rode them down. Having left my lance buried in one man, I spurred my mount towards their makeshift corral, drawing my sword and slashing at anyone who tried to interfere but mostly missing my mark as they dove away rather than fight me. Behind me, shouts and the staccato clashing of metal on metal testified to the more successful efforts of others.

I neared the corral, then reigned in wildly in frustration. Between me and my goal stood several dozen knights, lances grounded against me while their comrades to the rear strove to control excited warhorses who had smelled blood long enough to saddle them. Prominent among these knights was Richard, calmly directing their efforts despite the fury distorting his face. There was no point in impaling myself on that barrier of lances, and the changing noises at my back warned it was time to leave. I hesitated for a moment, indecisive, and as I did, my brother saw me and gestured in my direction. Our gazes locked for a moment. Then, before aught could be exchanged in that meeting, my horse reared beneath me. Even as I reacted with instinctive balance, a burning pain tore along my ribs and up into my shoulder, followed by a spreading cold. My mount shied sideways, surprised as much as I was, and I smote downwards and back with my sword, breaking the top of the lance that had slipped past my armor before it could dig any deeper. The lance-wielder fell almost before his lance, trampled beneath the hooves of my enraged warhorse. Through the waves of pain that followed the initial numbness, I gritted my teeth and reseated myself, willing the pain to ebb. The wound hurt too much to be fatal, so I faced my brother once more.

“Richard! Your brother welcomes you to Belfalas. May your stay here be no less pleasant than this night!” With that, I wheeled as gracefully as my wound allowed and retraced my path through the camp.

The road out was far more difficult than the road in. Their initial panic over and done, Richard’s men were rallying, and I could already count a dozen empty saddles among our force. As we regrouped to leave, crossbow bolts began to flit about our ears like hunting bats. More men fell, and a numbing shock struck my bad side as a well-aimed bolt caught me a glancing blow. My backplate saved me; had the bolt struck a few inches more to the side, it would have entered through the gap the lance had torn in the lashings between breastplate and backplate. Nonetheless, the answering pain from my wound, rising to sweep away the cool numbness that had begun to grow there once more, blinded me. I focused all of my will, ignoring the warm stream trickling down my side, and let my horse follow in the path cleared by those ahead of me. Reflexes kept me in my saddle until my vision cleared and we broke free and out into the night. The night enfolded us, exchanging our firelit bronze for shadow.

Hoots of triumph echoed through the dark around me and I grunted despite the pain. As we formed up at our meeting place, the warm blood trickled faster down my ribs. I pressed my arm against my side, biting my lip against the answering pain, and the flow slowed. Behind us, the sounds of an outraged camp rose up to the fleeing clouds, but there were no signs of pursuit as yet. If Richard had learned caution, there would be no pursuit until the morning, for these hills were our home, not his, and he could not risk following us and being drawn into a long-prepared ambush. I waited for the last stragglers, then waved an aching arm, signaling that we could move on to our prearranged shelter. Blood continued to trickle down my side and my head swam, but I clenched my teeth and rode on.

***

Concerned riders clustered around the fire while saddled horses stood just outside the circle of light, still breathing hard from the excitement of their run. I sat by the fire, arms held by two of my burliest men while our most experienced ‘surgeon’, a nervous old veteran, knelt before me. The lance's barbed tip, severed by my blow, projected almost half an inch from my right side where it had ground along ribs and buried itself in the muscle below my breast. In the flickering light, it looked more sinister than I can comfortably describe.

As the squire grasped the splintered shaft, I bit down hard on the thick pad of sword belt leather clenched between my teeth. Without warning, the youth tightened his grip and thrust forward and to the side. As the barb emerged from my flesh, pain grayed my vision and I jerked hard against the arms restraining me. Were it not for the hardened leather in my mouth, my teeth would have met and broken.

Dazed, I clung to consciousness; I would have fainted had it not been for the brand that burned hot against my side, the pain jolting me far enough from unconsciousness to smell the stench of charring flesh. When my sight cleared, it was to see the man just finishing the task of sponging my side with some liquid that burned coldly wherever it touched the wound. He bandaged my wound, but not so gently I relinquished my grip on the leather in my mouth. When he had done, I mastered myself enough to overcome the throbbing in my side and spit out the leather that lay bloody and unpleasant, half bitten through, in my mouth. The arms holding me relaxed, and as the last bandage was pulled tight, I got to my feet. It took a tremendous effort, but I was able to tear my gaze away from the blood that soaked my entire right side and much of the man in front of me.

There was a quiet buzz of approval, then tense faces relaxed and callused hands passed me my cleaned armor, the lashings patched where someone had split it open to let them pull it past the lance. I forced a smile, one as grim as death I do not doubt, and patted my doctor on the shoulder with my left hand; my right arm, having had enough for the night, was no longer willing to cooperate, and in any event, was bound to my chest to protect the wound until it stopped bleeding. The veteran handed me a flask, likely the same one he had used to irrigate my wound, and I tipped it towards the heavens. The liquor was foul, but it burned away the horrible taste in my mouth and set a warm fire in my belly that spread to my limbs and head; I handed him back the flask and smiled. I would pay for that warmth soon enough, but for now, it was what I needed.

I did not even contemplate trying to slip back into my armor; until the wound stopped bleeding, I wanted nothing to do with it—and besides, it would be unwise to try sleeping in armor amidst the dew. My head, jaw, and right side ached, and if I had been alone I would have sunk to my knees and vomited. But rank has its duties, so I forced down the rising bile and set about ensuring that the other wounded were being tended to. That done, we readied the horses for flight should pursuit should come unexpectedly, and bedded down for what remained of the night.

***

Morning came and I sat up, stiff with pain. My whole right side felt as if it had been used as a jousting dummy, my mouth tasted of metal, and I reeked of clotted blood, charred flesh, and the sweat of several days of exertions. As I looked around me, the worn faces of my men told me they felt little better, and less encouraging still, several looked to have been wounded as badly as I had been. I thought of what they were doing for me and felt a wave of affection, almost love, sweep over me. It is this shared pain, I feel sure, that makes men willing to risk their lives in a struggle that is not their own, a curious and sad aspect of the affection we learn for each other. Yet for all that, I could imagine my ancestors sharing that same bond when they first set foot upon this new land, knowing that only this bond would let them survive.

During the night, the wound had stopped bleeding, but the bandages the surgeon had used were soaked through and clotted hard. He shook his head, then unbound my arm long enough to slip it into my armor. I braced myself as best I could, but the pain was unbelievable; sweat sprang out upon my brow and pooled in my armpits, but I managed to resist crying out. When my vision cleared, my arm was strapped to my breastplate and my doctor had moved off to attend to his other patients. Someone brought me my horse, and I held it lefthanded, contemplating the problem of mounting. When I felt as ready as I would ever be, I clutched the saddle with my left hand, placed my left foot into the stirrup, and swung myself into the saddle. I made it, but only because the pain galvanized me enough to keep from falling off the horse's other side. The world reeled for a moment, but when it stabilized, I gave the signal to ride off.

Breakfast was cold, hard jerky, choked down in the saddle, eased past our throats by careful sips of our remaining water. I ate none of it, my jaw too sore to chew. We rode for the river, unavoidably sending up a tall column of ashes and dust in our wake. And soon, as I had expected, our own wavering grey banner was joined by another at our rear.

Richard.

In spite of myself, I hoped Rothsbane would listen well to Gareth’s words.

***

After a time I could not measure, my whole being focused on staying conscious and in the saddle, we reached the river, beckoned onwards by a heartening sight. On the muddy banks, several barges had been grounded. As we rode up, feeling more dead than alive, a raucous cheer rose up from the several hundred archers, pikemen, and infantry awaiting us. Despite the absence of Rothsbane’s lancers, my heart lifted, for Richard had pressed us hard during the final stretch and was not far behind... minutes at best.

My eyes sought out and found Gareth as we slid down the shallow slope to the water and my men began dismounting, several falling to their knees. Gareth was shouting orders and had no time for anything more than a broad wink of encouragement as he roared at his men. As for myself, I too went to my knees when I dismounted, and found myself in no condition to do more than watch. Gripping the stirrup left-handed, I managed to rise, leaning on my horse, and as I watched, Philip arrived and began herding my men into the barges. This next phase would be Gareth’s alone.

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Chapter 19: Gareth

Bram looked like death warmed over as he rode up, and the amount of blood on his gear and the way he swayed in his saddle told me he’d been wounded. I didn’t like the sling that bound his arm, but he was still riding, so the damage couldn’t have been that bad. Besides, I was just about the only one from my own troop who was still standing, so I couldn’t have looked much better. When my energy finally did give out, I’d be gone for a day. For now, however, someone had to hold the fort until Rothsbane worked his way around the enemy’s flank. Not that it was much of a fort to hold, mind you. Up went the pikemen, forming a steel copse around our position, while the archers began setting their shafts into the riverbank's soft mud to await the horsemen.

I watched as the foe rode up, as much as a thousand strong, and I swore softly to myself. Ratsbane, if he had any sense at all, would take one look at what he was facing and would come skulking back here with his bald tail between his legs. Truth be told, I wouldn’t blame him a bit if he did. Richard’s men pulled up just beyond effective bow range and a short while later, Rich himself rode up under a make-do flag of truce. I toyed with the idea of letting him have it right then and ending Bram’s troubles, but it wasn’t a serious thought. I glanced behind me, but didn’t see Bram on the barges ’cause of the crowding there.

“Hail the river bank! I would speak with your leader.” Rich’s voice was strong even though he must have ridden as far and as long as Bram. There was the usual contempt too; it wouldn’t have been Richard without it. I climbed the bank and pushed between two pikemen.

“Here!”

He stared, thin-lipped as if he wanted to spit out something distasteful. “I would speak with my brother, Sirrah. I do not deal with lackeys.”

“Then you don’t deal at all.” I turned to leave.

“Wait! I ask your pardon, Gareth.” His voice was icy, and didn’t sound all that apologetic. “I failed to recognize you beneath all that filth. I have come one last time to discuss terms of surrender. There is a place for good men in our army.”

I savored my reply, wishing Bram had been there. “Then you’ve come a long way for nothing, haven’t you?”

Richard’s control broke for a moment and he half-drew his sword. I reached down past a startled bowman, grabbed his bow, and straightened up with an arrow nocked. “I see you’ve misunderstood me. Let me rephrase that.” There was a gasp of outrage from the enemy knights as I took careful aim and let fly, but I knew my target better than they did, and I wasn’t going to miss. The arrow cut a swath through the banner, causing the white flag to shred under the brisk wind. Well, I confess I’d been aiming for the shaft, but it worked out well enough anyway.

I had to admit that Richard had balls; he hadn't even twitched. Maybe he didn’t know how close he’d been to being the target. Clearing his throat, he spat loudly and nastily, then reached up the lance's shaft and ripped off what remained of the banner. With a snarl, he flung it at me, then reared his horse and rode back to his men. I returned the borrowed bow and stood back to await his next move. As it turned out, Ratsbane moved first and forced my hand.

From our right flank, facing upstream, there came the sound of a horn. All heads turned, dumb with surprise as Ratsbane and his hundred charged ten times their number of better equipped knights. In that moment, as I watched the ragged line of knights straighten out, as I watched Richard’s cavalry form up for a countercharge, I felt a sneaking respect for Rats... for Rothsbane. He had done the same sort of sneaky, gutsy, stupid thing I might have done in his place and forced the issue. The two lines of riders came together and as the noise of snapping lances rose above the beat of iron-shod hooves, I urged my own men forward.

By a miracle, some of Rothsbane’s men had made it through the ranks of Ameliorites and had begun regrouping for a second try. We ran, pikemen and foot soldiers both, all discipline gone as our archers snatched at their arrows and followed after us. You don’t just stand by and watch that sort of courage die.

As we ran, Rothsbane hit Richard again and the tidy lines vanished into the melee. We arrived at the rear of the fight, but someone had seen us coming, and the bulk of the knights broke off to deal with us, leaving the remainder to chop Rothsbane’s men to pieces. With the way the enemy’d been treated so far, I didn’t bet on too many prisoners being taken, ’specially since the attack had come so soon after the flag of truce.

In any event, my men were well enough trained to stop when called on, though it took two blasts of the recall to do it, and the pikemen braced themselves in a solid formation around us, pikes grounded. The approaching charge faltered, broke off, and began circling. They weren’t stupid enough to try anything against such a defense, and they moved to a respectful distance when they saw our archers readying a volley.

I gave a signal, and though the range wasn’t good, a few shots landed. At least one horse went down, and several knights were unhorsed before Amelior withdrew out of range and I called off the bowmen. Looking over at the dispersing melee, I couldn’t see any sign of Rothsbane’s men, not even a riderless horse.

Blast it!

I signaled the retreat and we began slow-walking our way back to the river, archers and pikemen covering our retreat.

Once more we took up position and waited. I looked back at the river and saw what was left of our cavalry disembarking on the far side, several men being carried. We were almost home free... if Richard was going to hold off until the barges came back for us. Fortunately, it looked like we’d taught Bram’s brother respect... or maybe he’d worked out his anger on Rothsbane. Rather than venturing within bowshot again, he settled down to wait for the rest of his troops.

If he’d had infantry support, we’d have all died on that shore, but he’d had to come too far and too fast to bring them. As it turned out, the river crossing was easy, and there were no losses on our side.

***

The remaining troops were waiting for us and cheered us ashore, sword hilts beating on shields to make more noise. The excitement felt good, and I soaked it in for a while, ignoring my fatigue. Then I looked for Bram, who was predictably in the middle of things, directing traffic from astride his horse. I couldn’t figure out where he found the strength. When he had things more or less under control, I stepped up to him and cleared my throat.

“Ahem! If your Highness has the time?” He frowned at the interruption, started to bark out a reprimand, then realized who it was. The frown was replaced by a tired smile, and he slid off his horse to meet me, staggering as he landed. I waited until he was almost down, then wrapped him in a bear hug and pounded him on the back. I was so glad to see him alive it was a moment before I felt him sagging in my arms. When I did, I released him and held him at arm’s length.

He was pale, and had to lean on me for too long before he got his feet back under him again. I saw blood starting to flow down his side—his wounds had opened—and a lump formed in my throat. He saw my reaction, and tried to smile, but it took a few seconds for his jaw to unclench enough to allow a weak grin.

“Please, Gareth, a little more restraint. I did not survive one brother just to be slain by the other.”

My voice was hoarse in reply, only partly from fatigue. “What happened to you?”

He looked away, embarrassed. “I turned my back on a man with a lance.”

I couldn’t help myself. I broke out laughing and he joined in, though his laughter was weaker than I liked. Still chuckling with relief, we headed back to the city together. Bram turned as if mount again, winced, and reconsidered. We left our aides to organize things, and returned to Belfalas, Bram leaning heavily on me for support. It looked like most of the town was there to meet us, held back by sweating lines of militia. No one was sure whether we should be greeted as conquering heroes or retreating failures, but the cheers came once they saw our smiles. Shows how little they knew about what was coming. But we waved back at them and kept on smiling while we forced our way back to the old palace and inside.

Standing in the antechamber, we had to shout just to be heard above the din. “You’d better get tidied up, bro’. Me too. I’ll leave Philip in charge of this mess until we’ve caught up on our sleep. Then we’ll do our serious thinking.” He started to speak, but I cut him off. “No objections allowed, sonny. Philip rode the wagons most of the way, so he can take over now. He ought to be able to stall the council ’till we recover. Besides, unless I miss my guess, I think you’ve got a visitor.” I gestured with a thumb towards the spot where Alison was standing, trying to look through the much taller men to find Bram. Without a backward look, Bram pushed off through the crowd at a staggering walk, not able to run in his condition. The two came together and embraced.

“Hey! Watch out for his ribs!” I bellowed, turning heads, then laughed, echoed by the guards who could see what was going on. Bram blushed just enough to bring color to his face, and right about then Alison caught a good whiff of him and pushed him away from her, holding him at arm’s length, nose wrinkled in disgust. I winked, and was rewarded by Alison sticking her tongue out. Then she led my brother off, clucking at him like a mother hen, and I turned away to seek out Philip and leave him his orders.

***

It was after dinner, and Bram and I sat with Philip in the nearly deserted council chamber surrounded by aides. They listened respectfully to our accounts of our separate trips back to town, then left when the talk grew a little more personal. We sat in silence for a while sipping warm spiced wine. I watched Bram, and spotted the color in his cheeks and the redness of his ears... strong wine and exhaustion were working on him, but I was worried it might have been fever. I’d called for the best surgeons the town had to offer, and they’d done what they could for him, but there was still a good chance the wound would turn bad, and I didn’t want to think about that. After a time, I proposed a toast to Richard and Rothsbane. That tweaked Bram’s conscience.

“Speaking of whom, what are our plans?”

I beckoned Philip to speak, ’cause he hadn’t said as much as it looked like he wanted to. “Well, Sirs, there’s not much we can do. There were no ransoms offered, so even if he's still alive, I suppose our next worry is the siege. To start off, we’ll have to wait for them to build rafts. Then we can try to knock them out of the river with our siege engines if they’re foolish enough to cross that near to town. More likely, we wait for them to try a landing and meet them at the shore. For the moment, I’ve taken the liberty of ordering siege rations started so that the townspeople will have something left for spring. Unfortunately, several merchants were able to leave along with large caravans of their goods, headed eastward to safety, before we could gain control of the gates.” Bram frowned and Philip shut up.

“I suppose our meal tonight was ‘siege rations’? Never mind, I know all the arguments about needing to be well fed for the welfare of Belfalas. The loss of a few merchants is a problem, but I do have a more serious problem with your analysis. If Amelior chooses to cross the river at any significant distance upstream, or for that matter, if they cross at several points, what can we do to stop them? We cannot afford to chase Richard halfway to the mountains just to prevent a crossing. By now, my brother has just about run out of mistakes to make. He will cross in at least two places. Despite our best efforts, they will establish a beach-head—or two—and will follow that up by gathering in strength and pushing us back into town. We must not forget that once they have gathered their whole strength, there will be at least four thousand of them, perhaps even five. Against less than a thousand of our own, of whom the majority will be levees and of little use. These are number games, of course, but remember that their advance guard by itself forced us to retreat. And a good thing at that, or we would never have made it back here on the heels of our deserters. So far we have given the men no time and no excuse to run, and at the moment, there would be nowhere for them to go. We have been fortunate this was the case.”

I beamed at him, starting to feel the wine. “Luck had nothing to do with it. It was good planning all the way.” Bram still looked weak, but his eyes were very bright and he was more alert than before. “At least with the walls in front of us, it’ll be a fair fight for a change!”

Bram scowled, pretending to be angry, and we chose to leave the tactics at that; planning while we were that tired invited disaster. Bram was clearly still hurting from his wounds, so we made it an early night.

***

Unfortunately, things went much as Bram had predicted—not that I was surprised. I was starting to learn from him just how predictable tactics had to be under certain conditions. Two days later, Amelior landed at four separate points and none of them within catapult range. We met them anyway at the nearest landing point, and gave them a faceful of arrows just to remind them they weren't welcome. Then we ran, ’cause even I knew that men from the upstream landings would be on us before we could do any serious damage. Back we went, and we sealed ourselves into Belfalas.

The town was not designed to withstand a siege, but we did have the lay of the land on our side. Despite the long, low walls, we had the river at our backs on two sides and that left them only two walls they could attack in force. There was also the grass surrounding the other two walls, waist-high and brown, dry and ready to burn. If they thought we’d be easy pickings, we were going to give them another unpleasant surprise.

They weren't in any hurry, though. They took the rest of the day to move their forces across the river, and then approached at their leisure. It was an impressive sight, that many troops gathered together at once and moving in good order. For that matter, it was a rare battle from the old sagas said to have had more men. They didn’t even bother trying to parley this time, and while the main force began setting up a camp, the first wave of besiegers ran at us. They carried tall, sturdy ladders and fascines bigger than the mantlets we’d seen before to ward off arrows and nastier stuff. Sadly, they were thinking along the same lines as I’d been and a few men carried torches. Before coming anywhere near the walls, they lit fires in several places and waited for the flames to burn out all the grass. They even managed to mark and avoid the few mantraps we’d been able to set before they arrived.

Their first wave was expendable, sent to keep us busy, wear us out, and test our weak points—Amelior doing things the traditional way again now that the type of game had changed. We held our fire until they had the ladders up, then let them have it. Up close, our arrows went right through the fascines, and what remained of the first wave retreated only a few minutes after they’d attacked. For the larger fascines and any ladders still left, we had oil. A few scattered patches of unburned grass by the walls were set ablaze, as were a few of the enemy playing dead while waiting ’till nightfall to escape. But on the whole, they got away untouched. They still hadn’t committed themselves, ’cause they were taking the time to feel out our defenses and pinpoint our weaknesses. Even though they did send a second wave to see if we’d be caught napping, the real attacks still hadn’t come. And judging by the numbers they had to throw at us, they might come in waves for several days.

From what I’d seen so far, Amelior’s men could die just as easily as we could, and didn’t appear to be much more skilled at man-to-man combat. What set them apart was their frightening patience and impressive discipline. If we gave them enough time, they’d beat us. It was that simple.

***

On the plus side, everyone knew that they’d have to take Belfalas pretty soon. The alternative was to walk back home to Arden for the winter, so we weren’t too surprised when they attacked a third time just before sunset, this time putting most of their muscle behind it. We were a whole lot less restrained this time with our arrows ’cause there were so many targets we didn’t need to worry about missing, and if we held back to conserve our supplies, the odds were good we wouldn’t have another chance to use them. Our levees kept tossing over the ladders and dropping rocks before many men could get climbing, but their own bowmen made that costly; we kept our best troops alert and in reserve to handle anyone who made it over the walls. As it was, only a few crazies ever made it up. There were a few tight moments, but we pushed them back every time a few managed to get a toehold on the wall. If we hadn’t drafted most able-bodied men in town, we’d never have had enough men to cover the whole wall, and at that, we were stretched thin. I didn’t get much chance to participate ’cause I was too busy directing traffic. It was dull stuff compared to a usual campaign, where everyone got into the action, but at least I had a warm bed to sleep in after we finally sent our playmates home.

On the whole, I think we hurt them a lot worse than they hurt us—but with their numbers, it wasn’t obvious. And somehow it still didn’t feel like they were really trying, even now, which I couldn’t understand. Maybe they were just tired after an entire summer of warring.

That night, we posted sentries, mostly civilians supported by the town guard, to make sure they didn’t sneak anyone in over the walls. Towards midnight, they rolled up their siege engines and started picking away at our walls. Their weapons were much heavier than anything I’d ever seen before, and heavier than anything we could mount on the narrow walls, so they outranged us despite our height advantage, and it wasn't long before they started knocking our weapons off the walls. There wasn’t much we could do about it. A sortie was out of the question ’cause they were too thick around to let us even try. Besides, they had our gates under guard and I wasn’t getting so old I’d forgotten what they’d done to Rothsbane.

I drifted off to sleep in a commandeered building by the main gate that we’d taken for our command post. I was so tired that the heavy crash of the rocks lulled me to sleep. My last thought was that we were lucky the ground by the river was so wet—at least they wouldn’t be able to tunnel in.

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Chapter 20: Bram

I sat bolt upright in bed, having wrenched my side rolling over. Flames still danced before my eyes, and I was covered in sweat despite the castle’s chill. I flinched at the far-off crash of rocks, trembling all over, as hot and flushed as if the flames had been here in the room rather than in the fields this morning. Beside me, Alison stirred, muttering something under her breath. I pulled the covers back over her, swung my feet over the side of the bed, and tried to rise.

That was a mistake, for the heaviness in my head was more than the residue of the dream. The room whirled about me, and I collapsed. It seemed for a brief moment that I was floating, arms flailing before me until they struck at the bedside table and carried it over with me. My vision blurred into darkness, the speed of my fall accelerated, and there came a flash of brightness as I struck the floor—but it was a distant pain, soon fading. I half recall the sound of running feet and a blurred image of Alison standing over me in her nightgown, but a fire burned in my wounded side to match the one in my head, and I am uncertain what was delirium and what was real. My bare flesh, sensitive even to the soft bedsheets, was numbed by the incredible cold that wrapped me round.

I remember strong hands that came from nowhere, icy cold and in no way gentle as they laid me back on the bed. Alison’s hand on my forehead was a chill band amidst the fire. My vision cleared as the pain in my side rose searingly, a bearded old man standing above me, his hand on my side, shaking his head. He tilted my head back, my stiff neck straining to the breaking point and the bedsheets now exquisitely scratchy beneath me. A hand appeared from nowhere bearing a ceramic mug of some fluid, a bitter liquid that trickled coolly down my throat until I could no longer force myself to swallow it, and began choking. Then someone laid my head back against the pillow and held me down as the old man knelt by my side and pain seared through me again. I would have screamed, pride notwithstanding, but my jaw was too stiff to open wide and my throat would not cooperate. Then the pain began to recede, and with it my consciousness, despite the prodding that went on and on at my side. My eyes closed; the bitter liquid's harshness was fading from my mouth and as it did, the scene in the room began to fade ever so slowly into wherever it is that dreams go.

***

My next waking was easier. There was warmth, but this time a soft, cradling heat rather than the flames of my former awakening. My eyes opened of their own volition, heavy though the lids were, and focused slowly on the room. I was in my own quarters, alone save for a slumbering Alison in a chair by the bed. The room seemed unnaturally bright, and my skin still felt flushed and hypersensitive. I tried to raise my left hand to touch her and it felt as heavy as if I were lifting a sword. I concentrated so hard that sweat stood out on my forehead, and the weakness eased enough for me to reach her and clumsily caress her hair. My right side twinged as if I had not moved in days, but the biting pain was gone. Was it possible I had been abed that long?

Alison woke at my touch and, seeing that I was awake, bent over me wordlessly, her warm tears dripping onto my face. She kissed me then, and I responded as best I could—none too well, under the circumstances and with the horrid taste in my mouth, and certainly not as well as her kiss deserved. For a moment or two, I savored the sensation before my ever-alert conscience awoke.

“What happened? How long have I been unconscious?” I whispered, the best my voice could achieve. The fact that I was in bed rather than imprisoned or dead suggested we had not yet been defeated, but my euphoria began to dissipate, borne away by the cool air licking at my exposed skin. “The siege—is it still on?”

She kissed me again before responding. “You’ve been feverish these past four days now. Your wound—I knew we should have seen to it. I almost lost you.”

Then, seeing my impatience, she went on, frowning at such singlemindedness. “The siege continues. Gareth holds off the enemy though they’ve twice captured parts of the wall. Oh, and our gates have withstood two attacks by rams, but only because the walls collapsed when the gates fell that second time. Oh my love, we were so worried for you!” She began crying again, but softly and with relief.

I comforted her as best I could and relaxed, knowing by my weakness I could scarcely move from this bed. The dried spots of blood along my bare right arm told me the physician had been using leeches, and my skin crawled. I turned my thoughts away, to the comfort of knowing that Gareth had things under control. For the moment, I would have to content myself with rest until such time as I could help myself, let alone Belfalas.

***

That evening, as I tried in deepest frustration to get my muscles to work again, there came the sound of feet in the corridor and a knock sounded on the door. I tottered over to the chair not three feet away, sweat beading on my brow and trickling down my sides, and gratefully collapsed into it. Only then did I bid my visitors enter.

Alison came first, bearing my dinner on a tray, followed by Gareth and the physician who had saved my life. Even though Alison had been living with me for a time, I was amused to note that old habits died as hard for her as for myself—she still showed deference to a ‘superior’ while a stranger was present. My lover and my adopted brother waited while the physician ministered to me, changing my bandages while maintaining a steady stream of abuse for my temerity at leaving my sickbed so soon. I waited until he ran down, then began wolfing down my meal. Though my strength was still absent, making even eating a challenge, my appetite had returned with a vengeance. With luck, my strength would follow in its own time. Alison sat beside me, an arm firmly about my waist, while Gareth plunked himself on the foot of my bed, leaning forward to nab an occasional morsel and pop it into his mouth.

“Well, bro’,” he said, his voice equal parts exhausted and concerned, “I was starting to wonder if you were going to leave me to save the world all by myself. Or were you just giving me a chance to do something without you there to hold my hand?”

I answered between bites. “The latter, I think.” Gulp. “After all,” gulp, “you look old enough by now to be able to take care of yourself.” Gulp.

He chuckled, some concern leaving his weary voice and the deep lines on his face easing. “But who’s been looking after you all of this time? Surely not this frail slip of a girl?” His eyebrow was cocked, waiting for Alison’s reply. She just snuggled closer, complacent. “Well, then, you’ll probably be wanting to know about our state of affairs, and about time too.” He proceeded to fill me in on what had happened while I was unconscious. There was little Alison had not told me, though she had omitted the continuous probes by Amelior and the magnitude of our casualties.

I finished eating before he had done and sat there hugging Alison close with my good arm as his story wound down. When he had done, I spoke. “I think it is about time your co-commander stopped babying himself and took a look around with his own eyes.” I made as if to get up, but Alison maintained her grip and I lacked the strength to rise and pull her with me.

“That’s not wise. You’re still pretty weak.”

“That's why he should be up and around,” chimed in Gareth. “The fresh air will do him good, and his appearance will put down rumors of his death. It’ll sure do morale some good.” He paused, a mischievous look growing. “Besides, dear girl, you can’t mollycoddle him forever—he’ll have to leave the womb someday.”

“The womb, is it?” Alison threw a pillow at him, which he ducked, laughing all the while. But the matter was settled: up I got.

***

I stood on the balcony, taking strength from the air’s biting chill. Alison snuggled closer, warming me, while Gareth stood propped against the balcony's broad stone rim. Below, the dim light and a gentle rain, mixed with occasional snowflakes, softened the world’s silhouettes and smoothed away most signs of damage. But even in the twilight, these signs were considerable.

The main gatehouse looked as if a malevolent giant had sat on it, and the walls elsewhere had collapsed in several places. Silhouetted against those gaps, the buildings looked malformed, and thin wisps of smoke rose here and there, dying fires smoldering in rubble that was hidden by the fading light. Shouts and a distant clash of metal suggested Amelior had not yet given up for the day. Elsewhere, fires burned bright, fierce pinpricks in the gathering dark. In a nearby courtyard, a pyre burned, sending thick, greasy smoke spiraling wraithlike up to the heavens. It was not alone, and I looked away from this evidence of the cost of our defense.

Belfalas had weathered the siege so far, but her wounds were there for any who had the stomach to look. I did not.

To the west, lightning flickered among the clouds that blotted out most of the mountain peaks, backlit by the falling sun. The first storms of winter had come, and our guests must soon notice this and leave. The guests themselves were dimly visible in the gloom lapping around the walls, huddled about their scattered campfires while part of the army continued its assault. I shivered and bade Gareth join me inside.

The air had done me a world of good, perhaps by cleansing me of the fever's foul vapors, but I was still leaning more heavily on Alison than I liked when we came inside. The few guards we met beamed at us and hurried off on their rounds. Word would soon be spreading I was back on my feet again, and as Gareth had noted, it would be good for morale. We continued onwards to my chambers, where Alison set about pouring drinks. A servant came and replenished the fire in the grate, leaving us to stare, pensive, into the flames for a time, savoring this brief—how brief!—respite from the war. Gareth fell asleep during that time of silence, and it was a while before Alison noticed and crossed the room to tuck a protective blanket about him. Leaning more heavily on her than before, I made my way back to bed.

***

I woke the next morning feeling much stronger, more rested and more at peace than I had felt since coming to Belfalas. Alison lay warm against my left side, breathing softly, and I was content to just lie at rest, cradling her there, even though my arm had fallen asleep and would hurt as much as my right arm when circulation returned to it. We lay thus for an indefinite time, alone in the room's silence (Gareth had risen and departed during the night). At last, there came a disturbance, a staccato knocking on the door followed almost instantly by Gareth bursting in on us. He looked even more exhausted than last night, but also intensely excited.

“They’re leaving! The bastards’re running away! We must’ve hurt them bad that last time—and you slept through the whole thing!”

Alison stirred. “Mmm?” Her eyes opened.

“Well don’t just lie there, we’ll want to see them off. And someone will have to help me hunt down the ones that got into town last night...”

“What?” I sat upright as his words penetrated the fuzzier recesses of my brain.

Gareth tried to look patient and failed, shifting his weight from foot to foot as if he needed to relieve himself after a hard night of drinking. “They attacked one last time last night, and made it into town before we drove them back. A handful got through our lines and disappeared, but we’re hunting them down right now and we’ve already caught a few. But the army's leaving, and we should do something about it.”

“Gareth,” I yawned, stretching and pulling Alison closer. “Why? We lack the manpower to run after them just because they are leaving. Indeed, were it me leaving, I would be hoping for such foolishness. I am certain they will have enough trouble already without our help. The mountains must already be filling with snow.” I winced as one of Alison’s roving hands found a tender spot beneath the covers, and with one arm pinned, I was unable to defend myself. “Besides which, there is already far too much to do before winter sets in.”

“Always the practical one, aren’t you?”

“I try.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to be practical then.” He cast us a suspicious glance. “Some of us have work to do, and sleep to catch up on.” He whirled and left, slamming the door in mock anger, not quite able to hide his smile before he turned away. I rolled onto my good side, holding Alison again. One of the very few joys of being so ill lies in leaving the important work to others. And in being pampered by loved ones.

***

Later, Alison and I stood together on the balcony, looking out over the plains. The day was grey and overcast, chill with autumn’s promise of coming winter, yet beautiful in a bleak way. There was snow on the eastern peaks already; to the west, where my gaze kept returning, the rain had lasted long enough to hold down the dust and ash in the retreating army's wake, but they were so numerous it was still easy to follow their progress. Perversely, there was a peace and beauty in that too, though I could not have explained why.

At the walls below, townsmen and a lesser number of weary guards labored together. Shoulder to shoulder, they worked at the long task of pulling down the more dangerous ruined buildings and using the rubble to shore up or fill in the battered walls. Other people went about their mundane business as best they could, and guards wandered here and there on their search for the enemies inside our defenses. Much of the work would be in vain, for though we detested the necessity, Gareth and I both knew we could not remain until spring to prepare a second defense. But the townsfolk knew nothing of this, and it would do no one any good to let them infer our plans by neglecting the activities that necessarily followed any siege.

Beyond the walls, small figures moved about the enemy camp, prowling like beetles in search of anything salvageable. Like a more sinister type of beetle, large carts moved up and down the fields before the walls, collecting corpses for the pyres that already burned and that would do so for days to come; when they died down, the farmers would have rich fertilizer to spread over their fields and nourish next year’s crops. Further afield, small squads of our men had been sent foraging to fill our larders from stores concealed by the peasants and freemen who had been unable or unwilling to bring their food to town. Given the inevitable quantities that would be lost to spoilage and rats, there were too many people to feed, and it had been an earlier harvest than desirable. On the other hand, the city’s impressive granaries had been filled nearly to overflowing, and many dry rooms throughout town had been pressed into service as emergency storage. In a different year, most of that food would have traveled east and west to feed other cities through the coming winter. Sadly, our plenty seemed likely to mean starvation for others, but I was beginning to feel hope for Belfalas.

My eyes fixed on the erratically moving carts. There would be festival in the town tonight after our deliverance, and I would have to be there long enough to share in their joy and confirm for them that I was recovering. But I could not remain for long, both because of my weakness and because I knew too well what lay ahead to face them with a clear conscience. Abandoning Belfalas to its fate was the essence of military practicality... but the antithesis of everything I had come to believe in. I held Alison, and turned my gaze to the western skies.

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