Across Ealond, small bands of men trickled together to form a river of soldiers. It slithered across the land, following the winding roads along streams of water or around hills and other obstacles from one city to another. Day by day, the procession grew as more and more joined; they were noblemen, soldiers of fortune, and peasants levied for war. The Order, be it as knights or common soldiery, was conspicuously absent.
Rumour of the army’s march went ahead, causing apprehension among the locals. It was never certain how soldiers would behave; this held especially true for the peasants suddenly drafted into war, sent on long marches far from home, and issued weapons for the first time. Every city was expected to contribute provisions and supplies for the king’s army, and if that were all they lost, they considered themselves lucky. In comparison, the villages and towns were fortunate to escape the direct attention of the army, though the coming war did not leave them untouched; most of the menfolk would be levied by the local lord, marching off to join the procession. Behind them, they left fields in need of tilling and sowing, a task left to the women, children, and men too old to fight.
Leading his band of about a hundred men, Baron Damien of Montmer reached the army two weeks after setting out. At this point, it had left Fontaine days ago, slowly moving west along the Mihtea for a supply of fresh water. Out on the river, the crews and passengers of passing boats stared at the assembly of soldiers, some with more understanding than others. Those following the flow of the river west, towards Herbergja, exchanged concerned words and worried looks. No matter the origin or destination, no matter what caused the movement, an army on the march was never a good sign to commonfolk.
As his men found a gap in the rows of marching soldiers where they might join, Damien rode ahead along the columns. He only halted his horse when he reached other riders, who hailed him.
“Sir Damien himself,” one of them shouted.
“Baron Damien,” the former knight replied in correction, guiding his steed to fall in next to them.
“Ah, true. They made you baron of that heap of rocks you call a castle, I forgot.”
“Compared to the barren wasteland of Verbonne, it is a grand fortress,” Damien retaliated.
“Lots of words, yet all I hear is jealousy.”
“That arrow wound in your shoulder, did it make you deaf? Or did the old count of Verbonne smack you one too many times over the head.”
The current count laughed. “That he did, the old bastard. At least it taught me the value of a good helmet.” He rapped his knuckles against the iron protection on his head. “Gods, I cannot believe you remember the arrow!”
“I pulled it out of you myself, while you grunted like a pig being turned to sausage,” Damien remarked. “How could I forget such a tender moment?”
More raucous laughter ensued, including from the count’s attendants, riding near their lord. “Say, how long have you been back? We could have used you in the fight against Belvoir,” said Verbonne.
“I bet you could,” Damien replied dryly. “But I only came back because that fight left empty seats at Montmer, and someone had to fill them.”
“Right, of course. You should have come back long ago, rather than drift around.”
The baron shrugged. “Given the road ahead, I should have stayed away longer.”
“Hah! Your sword is sharp, Montmer, but your tongue is not dull either.” Verbonne lowered his voice, which given his boisterous nature, did not make much difference. “Monteau would say the same. He is none too pleased. He says little, but you can tell by his look.”
“I never met the man.”
“You will get the opportunity,” Verbonne declared. “We got more than one day between us and the fish-lickers! You will eat with us tonight, and I will make introductions.”
“I have done enough marches to never turn down food,” Damien remarked, to which his new companions voiced their agreement.
As evening fell, the army made camp. Some had tents to pitch. Mostly the rich among the noblemen and the seasoned mercenaries. As for the rest, a bedroll or perhaps just a woollen cloak provided comfort while fires began to burn, letting the soldiers make an evening meal for themselves. Such had been the case for Damien so far, marching only with his men to reach the army, but tonight he heeded Verbonne’s invitation. Leaving his horse in the care of his sergeant, the baron made his way through the disorderly camp.
His destination was one of the larger tents, already filled with people eating cold meats and drinking wine. All present appeared to be of the nobility, judging by the crests adorning their garbs. In comparison, Damien wore an undyed cloak, and his equipment looked worn except for the sword, newly gifted to him by the marshal.
“A stray dog!” The remark came from a nobleman already deep in the cups, seeing Damien standing by the entrance to the tent.
“You should watch yourself,” Verbonne declared, standing up quickly. “That is Sir – Baron Damien of Montmer, and he could take your head before you finished mouthing off.”
“The oath-breaker,” mumbled the first man, though he kept his voice quiet.
Damien’s hand clenched his sword hilt, but another spoke before the former Templar could.
“Make room for the baron.” The speaker sat in the middle of the tent on the only proper chair. Everyone else had stools or improvised furniture; Verbonne’s seat was a barrel, which he returned to now that Damien had been admitted entrance.
“Thanks,” said the baron gruffly, sitting down on a crate next to his friend.
“We have never met,” continued the other man, “but I saw you at the tournament in Middanhal, many years ago. The Order’s loss is our gain.”
A large plate with meat carvings was placed on a table in front of them, and Damien reached out to grab a fistful of ham. “By your attire, I wager you are the duke of Monteau and my host tonight.”
“That I am.”
“In that case, I eat to your health.” Damien raised the meat in his hand as a gesture before he tore off a bite with his teeth.
His remark caused some laughter. “Better get the man something to drink, or he will keep eating to your health,” Verbonne suggested, and someone put a cup of wine in front of Damien.
“Much obliged,” the baron muttered, though he refrained from picking up the goblet, sticking to his slices of ham.
“A pity you were not in Ealond when we fought against Belvoir,” Monteau said.
“So I have heard.”
“The fish-lickers should provide less resistance, at least,” Verbonne claimed. “Belvoir may be the son of a traitor, but his soldiers are rivermen. The islanders only know how to fight at sea, steady ground under their feet confuses them!” He roared with laughter and was rewarded with the same from others.
“What is your opinion, Baron Montmer?” asked the duke, watching his food being rapidly eaten by Damien.
“My opinion is that we face Order soldiers on those walls, and our levies will not fare well.”
“You doubt our ability to fight?” someone asked with rising anger.
Damien sent the man a disinterested look. “I have no knowledge of your sword, only your tongue, which tells me little of your skill. But I know Order soldiers, and I know Sir Asger. Nothing good awaits us on those walls. Trying to scale them will decimate us.”
“We have the finest engineers with us,” someone countered. “We will be on their walls with ease!”
“And then true warriors, true rivermen of honour and valour, will ensure victory!”
Damien’s attention was still on his food, but he wore a smile that could be understood as contemptuous.
“You seem doubtful,” Monteau said, directed at the baron making his way through a serving of mutton.
“The way to take Herbergja is by sea. The harbour is too wide for proper defence, and the soft ground prevents heavy fortifications. Attacking the city by land, we have to go through the Mihtea itself, surrounding the city like a moat,” Damien explained. He finally raised his eyes to find everyone looking at him in silence. “I see my lords have never walked the walls of Herbergja.”
“A moat is hardly going to stop us,” someone sneered, though with little conviction.
“Not forever, but it will delay the siege by months if you want to divert the course of the river and allow your siege towers and battering rams to reach the walls. Assuming such a feat is even possible.” Damien shrugged.
“My father told me of a siege once, where they made simple bridges. Did not take more than a few days,” came the suggestion with a touch of triumph in the speaker’s voice.
“Sure, leaving only storm ladders for the assault.” Damien reached out to grab another slice of mutton. “Which would be a bloodbath.” He chewed loudly, the only one making noise. After a few moments of silence, he finally rose. “It might be best to seek rest, given the march ahead. Thank you for your hospitality, Duke Monteau.” The baron inclined his head to his host and left the tent, leaving an untouched cup of wine behind along with a subdued collection of noblemen.
The other large tent in camp was almost empty. The king sat in a chair with a cup of wine. He stared through the opening on the activities outside, winding down for the night; soldiers that finishes their meals, made sure their belongings were in order for tomorrow’s march, and lay down to sleep. The king’s only company was a servant, ensuring the royal cup remained full.
One of the guards outside the tent stuck his head inside. “Master Guilbert is here, Your Majesty.”
“Send him in,” Rainier commanded while he gestured at his servant. The latter left as Guilbert entered. “What news?” asked the king.
Having made a deep bow, Guilbert straightened up. “Another has joined the duke and his retinue. Baron Damien of Montmer.”
Rainier frowned. “Montmer? Is he a vassal to me or the duke?”
“Yours, Your Majesty. In fact, the father and brother of the current baron both fought for Your Majesty against – the traitors.”
“The name means nothing to me, so I assume his army is modest.”
“Perceptive as always, Your Majesty. It is not the strength of his army, but his arm or rather his name that precedes him.”
The king drank from his cup. “Should I know it?”
“Not necessarily, Your Majesty. The old men do. As a Templar knight, Sir Damien was renowned. There may not be a better swordsman in all of Ealond.”
“Knight?” Rainier scowled. “Is he one of Martel’s rats in disguise?”
“No, Your Majesty. He was thrown out of the Order years ago.”
“An oath-breaker,” the king spoke with disdain. “I can see why he fits in the company of Monteau.” He seemed to stare past Guilbert, out on the camp or at something no others could see, and muttered to himself. “Malcontents, the lot of them. This baron,” he suddenly spoke with renewed fervour, “is he of the same ilk as the duke?”
“He did seem to discourage the others,” Guilbert revealed. “Hardly the same mettle as his family. He may not be a beneficial influence upon your other vassals, Your Majesty.”
Rainier stroke the small beard on his chin, which his servant groomed each morning. “That can be remedied. After all, if his prowess is renowned, we must have him lead our soldiers.”
Guilbert bowed deeply. “An excellent decision, Your Majesty.”