As the march continued, Damien’s companions changed from day to day, with the exception being Verbonne, who rarely wavered from his friend’s side. Some came to see the name known to many, either from early deeds bestowing honour or latter years spent in ignominy. Damien paid them little heed, except when asked his opinion on the war ahead. Though the army of Ealond had other greybeards and veterans, the young noblemen had only seen battle when fighting the duke of Belvoir, and they knew little of sieges.
The attention eventually subsided, and on the last day before reaching Herbergja, Damien rode undisturbed with only Verbonne as company. The latter spoke most of the time with the baron of Montmer mostly interjecting grunts of agreement when needed.
After a lengthy and unusual period of silence, Damien looked over at the count. Verbonne rode with a grimace on his face, and his left arm hung low rather than holding to the reins.
“Something ails you?”
Verbonne shook his head. “Just the old arrow wound. On cold days, I feel it in the shoulder. It causes no problem to me as such.” Despite his casual words, it was hard to imagine the count raising a shield with that arm in its current state. He cleared his throat. “Have you heard of Fortönn?”
“Not unless you have already told me.”
“They say a fleet of Alcázar has invaded the island. Imagine that, southerners daring to attack Adalmearc!” A few voices gave utterances of shock from among Verbonne’s men.
“I suppose their hour is well chosen. There is strife in most of the realms,” Damien considered.
“Indeed, those scoundrels. It will be a terrible siege on the island, no doubt! But they say the garrison is strong and could last for weeks or longer,” Verbonne claimed.
“I would wager the length of the siege depends on how many men the southrons are willing to throw at the walls.”
“The question is where they turn their attention next. Dvaros?” the count speculated.
“They will need a larger harbour than Fortönn, but I doubt it will be the carven city,” the baron said. “I have seen Dvaros. It is near impossible to assault. I suspect they will seek to the mainland.”
“Hah, consider if the bastards sail for Herbergja! We would have a merry feast between us, them, and the islanders.”
“Unlike our gracious king, they come with a fleet,” Damien pointed out. “If you gave me free choice, I would rather be in their ranks.”
Verbonne issued his characteristic laughter that swept over the landscape. “Imagine if the southerners take the city first, and we will end up liberating the city we came to conquer!”
For once, Damien’s lips curled upwards. “Why not? Stranger things have happened.”
Of those nearby, a few joined in the mirth, while others simply paid attention to every word exchanged between the noblemen.
On the following day, the army spotted the walls of Herbergja. The gates were closed; banners and soldiers of the Order crowded the towers. Marching along the Mihtea, the army made camp and set up defensive structures. The engineers, the best from the guild in Fontaine, began their survey. Their main interest was not the walls, but the great river that flowed past their camp towards the city, surrounding it like a moat to the north and south before reaching the sea. A boat, brought along from Fontaine for this purpose, allowed them to measure the depth of the river, which otherwise was devoid of vessels; word of the army arriving had spread, ensuring that none lingered.
Meanwhile, the soldiers set up camp south of the Mihtea. Given the harbour, any attempts to starve the city would be futile, and the army saw no reason to control the northern riverbank. The soldiers erected watchtowers, letting sentries keep eye on the water and beyond; otherwise, scouts were sent out to scour the southern side and see it clear of Order forces or islanders.
Having no tents to raise, Damien’s preparations in camp were quickly done. The same probably held true for his soldiers, peasants armed with hunting spears or old blades, but if so, Damien would not be aware; he spent his time in the tent belonging to Verbonne, drinking water while the count had wine.
A royal guard interrupted them, sticking his head inside the tent. “You have been summoned, milord,” he said. “The baron,” he clarified, looking at Damien, who in turn glanced at the count; he received only a shrug in response. Getting up, Damien followed the guard across camp until they reached the grand tent raised for the king. “Wait here,” came the command as the messenger went inside. An expression ran across Damien’s face, but he did as he was told, shifting from foot to foot with his hand on the sword hilt. The guards outside the tent gave him disinterested looks, but did nothing else. A few moments later, the messenger appeared. “You may enter now.”
Damien strode past the guards to find several people waiting for him. The king, as could be expected, was present, seated in a comfortable chair. Guilbert, his advisor, stood next to him. A bearded man wearing work clothes and gloves in leather, had rolled up parchments in his hands. Finally, the king’s servant could be found in the back.
“Baron Montmer,” the king greeted him, to which Damien bowed his head while still glaring at everyone present. “I have a task of the utmost importance only suitable for the bravest, and so I thought of you.”
“What task would that be?” asked the nobleman.
A displeased expression touched the king’s face before he spoke again. “This is my chief engineer.” He motioned towards the bearded man. “He has need of your aid to perform a daring feat that will enable us to win this siege. Go with him, and he shall explain it all.”
Damien sighed and gave the engineer a withering stare. “Come on, then,” he exclaimed. With a deep bow to the king, the craftsman left the tent quickly. The baron inclined his head towards the king and made his own departure.
With displeasure appearing on his face once more, the king emptied his cup. “He seems little more than a beggar dressed up as a warrior. Is he really up to the task?”
“If he is, he will return with the knowledge we require. If not, he will not return at all. Either way, a problem has been solved, Your Majesty,” Guilbert claimed.
“If only Monteau could be handled so easily.”
“Give it time, Your Majesty. Once the assault begins, the duke may find himself where the fighting is hardest.”
The king gave no answer but stretched out his hand to have his cup refilled.
In the middle of the night, two men left the camp. One was Damien, wearing a leather jerkin in lieu of his chain shirt. He had no helmet either. The few bits of metal he wore, such as the hilt of his sword, had been covered, avoiding any reflection of the crescent moon’s pale light. Next to him walked another man, similarly dressed in dark leather and cloth. He carried a rope with a grappling hook attached to it, covered by a sack.
Together, they walked towards Herbergja, passing beyond the outer defences and sentinels of the encampment. The open stretch of land between city and camp lay empty, as far as eyes might see in the dark; though if any Order soldiers crept around, it was reasonable to assume that they, like Damien and his companion, had clad themselves for the night.
As they moved, the pair studied their surroundings; at any sign of movement, they crouched low and waited until an owl flew past, a fox ran by, or some other animal. Slowly, as the hours crawled by, so did the two men, approaching Herbergja.
“That hook,” Damien asked in a quiet voice, glancing at the other man’s sack. “That is an islander tool, is it not? You use it to board ships.”
“If you are an islander, should you not be up there?” Damien threw his head towards the city walls.
“They’ve got no reason to pay me coin for flinging hooks, do they?” the islander replied with a grin.
“I suppose not.”
They continued in silence as Herbergja began to rise higher and higher in the horizon. Specks of light could be seen on the walls, torches carried by guards. They were many; as could be expected, vigilance was high.
“Wait.” Damien whispered the word, extending one hand to arrest his companion. “Until that cloud covers the moon.” They both looked up at the crescent moon, watching as its light slowly became dimmed. Only then did they continue.
Finally, they stood by the moat. The islander coiled the rope of his hook, ensuring it would not get tangled. Meanwhile, Damien removed his boots and unbuckled his belt. Laying the latter carefully on the ground along with his sword, he removed the knife from its sheath.
“Ready?” asked the islander hoarsely, smiling.
“Get to it,” Damien replied impatiently.
The islander began swinging the hook, gaining momentum until he let it fly. It soared up and landed on the wall between the crenellations, attaching itself. He let go of the rope, which fell down to hang against the stonework. “You’re up.”
Placing his knife between his teeth, Damien sat down by the edge of the moat and carefully entered the water. He swam the short distance to cross it, reaching the rope hanging down the wall. Treading waters, he took his knife and cut the strands where they met the water. His free hand caught the rope floating in the moat; returning the knife to his mouth, he swam back.
“What’s this?” came a voice from the wall. “A rope! Alarm!”
Looking up, Damien saw lights. Several of them, approaching. He swam faster. Reaching the bank, he saw no sign of the islander. “Coward,” he sneered through teeth clenched around his knife. He climbed up, sheathing the small blade. Suddenly, torches landed around him, thrown from the walls to illuminate the ground. Arrows began to follow. “Himil’s balls!” Damien exclaimed. Still holding the severed rope, he grabbed his belt with the same hand, his pair of boots with the other, and ran off towards the camp.
An hour later, having ran most of the way, Damien reached camp. He shivered from the cold in the night air, wearing soaked clothes. His boots were back on his feet, at least, and his belt returned to his waist. His hand carried the severed rope still.
“Who goes there?” asked the guards at the edge of camp.
“Me, you fools,” Damien barked. “I left some hours ago.”
The sentinels scrutinised his appearance; both failed to suppress expressions of mirth. “You may pass,” one of them said, almost without snickering.
The baron stalked past them, walking forcefully until he reached the tent of the chief engineer, who lay snoring on his cot. Barging in, Damien kicked the bed.
With a confused expression, shifting to fear momentarily, the sleeper woke and looked around. Damien threw the wet rope on top of him. “Your prize,” he muttered.
“What? Oh!” The engineer leapt out of bed, grabbing the rope. He pushed through his tools scattered around the tent until he found a foot-long stick used for measurement. He stretched out the rope, measuring one foot, continued to measure the second, and the third, and in this manner, determined the full length of the remaining rope. “Twenty-eight feet and two inches! That gives us walls that are almost twelve feet tall,” he said, grabbing a piece of coal to write down numbers on parchment.
“You got what you needed?” Damien asked.
“What did you say?” The engineer looked up. “Yes, I did.” He smiled.
“Good. Ask me to do something like this again, I will disembowel you with a spoon.” Damien strode off, leaving the craftsman to his calculations.