192. Before the Storm
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Before the Storm

Herbergja

Nearly past noon, a foot prodded the sleeping Damien. “Time to wake,” came the boisterous voice belonging to the count of Verbonne. “You cannot sleep away the whole war!”

“Begone, Hel-spawn,” Damien mumbled with eyes closed.

“I heard you took a swim last night.”

The baron finally opened his eyes, looking up to find a wide grin greeting him. “You know this, and yet you bother me.”

“I figured you needed to break fast, and I know you got nothing but mouldy bread with you.” Verbonne threw strips of dried meat at his friend. Damien growled but picked up the beef, even the bits that landed in the dirt, and began to chew. “Come, up!” the count demanded. “Walking around will do you good before you grow lethargic.”

With apathetic movements, Damien got up. He took the cloth serving as his bedroll and clasped it around his neck, turning it into a cloak. “You woke me up to take a stroll?”

“I am bored.” Verbonne shrugged. “Damn whatever fool invented sieges!”

“Everyone claims that sieges bore them,” Damien remarked, “but the moment the fighting starts, everyone wishes they were still bored.”

 “Hah, true! But we all have reputations to uphold, so we must all make the same, old complaint.”

Damien glanced around with a frown, passing tents and soldiers playing dice. The otherwise pervasive smell of horses began to lessen as they moved away from the parts of camp where the nobility resided. “Where are we going?”

“I thought we might cast a look at the engineers.” Verbonne spoke quietly, relative to the usual magnitude of his voice. “I am guessing that is why you went swimming last night.”

“They had me measure the height of the walls.”

“Could it be for siege towers?”

“Hardly. To get them to the walls, we have to fill the moat. To do that, we must divert the river to stand a chance. I do not see much digging being done so far,” Damien pointed out. “It has to be storm ladders.”

“Perhaps we will see in a moment,” Verbonne considered.

They reached the only part of camp busy with labour. Timber was being measured, cut, and assembled in various ways, overseen by the siege engineers and carried out by their apprentices and craftsmen.

“No wheels in sight,” Damien said.

“I better tell the duke. He will want to know what to expect.”

The baron of Montmer did not reply to this other than to take another bite of his dried beef.

~~~~

The next days passed quietly in the siege camp. Until the engineers completed their tasks, there would be no assault upon the city; being outnumbered, there was little chance of the garrison risking an open battle. Thus, the rivermen had little to do besides patrol the area and wait. This lasted until the fourth day of their arrival.

On the fourth night, cries of alarm rose from the northern sentinels. Arrows descended from the air and spears appeared in the dark. Unlike Damien on his nightly foray, the Order soldiers had not concealed themselves entirely; even if they had, the noise from hundreds of men in movement would give them away. Thus, the men of Ealond had warning before the enemy came upon them, and seizing weapons, they rushed towards the northern lines to defend their camp.

Damien woke among his men, most of whom had had never seen battle before. They gripped their weapons, staring in every direction with fright on their faces. “What should we do, milord?” asked some

“Do we fight?”

“Where do we go?”

“Quiet, you simpering fools!” Damien barked. “Stay where you are. Plenty of other oafs in this camp eager to die.”

“What if they attack us, milord?”

“Himil’s balls,” the baron swore. “This is barely a skirmish. Our camp is fortified, and they hardly got the numbers to do much. Even the rabble here can hold them off.” His voice grew less intense. “In fact, there is nothing to be gained by this attack, unless…”

“What, milord?”

Damien threw his helmet onto his head and began walking away. “Stay here!”

“Milord, where you’re going?”

“Stay where you are!” the baron shouted over his shoulder, hurrying away.

 He ran through a camp gripped by confusion, though most soldiers understood to make their way north. As the only one, Damien moved south. He reached the engineers’ part of the camp and stopped, catching his breath. All seemed calm. In part due to the corpses on the ground, making no noise. Every guard posted to this location lay dead, killed in swift struggle overshadowed by the fighting to the north.

Blinking in the dark, Damien stared at the few shadows and shapes moving about. He gripped the hilt of his sword, but did not draw the blade just yet. Ahead of him, the white star of the Order could be faintly seen against the black surcoats of the attackers. Now and then, sparks lit up in the darkness, as flint struck metal in an attempt to ignite tinder.

Moments passed as Damien watched, seemingly paralysed. His hand lay ready on the hilt, yet he did not draw steel, and his brow lay furrowed in thought.

Finally, the attackers had luck, and flame began to blossom. “Over here!” someone cried out. “They’re setting fire to the camp!” The calls for aid were repeated, and soldiers began to stream towards the area.

With a growl, Damien finally drew his sword and ran forward. He engaged the nearest Order soldier, pushing him back. Staying defensive, Damien swiped at several more, forcing them on the retreat. Meanwhile, more rivermen arrived; while some joined the fight, others began to put out the fires. The element of surprise lost and time against them, the Order soldiers pulled back, returning to the darkness.

~~~~

Any damage caused by the nightly raid proved limited. The only aim had been to destroy the siege machinery being built, using the initial assault as a diversion. Yet the attack upon the engineers’ quarters had been discovered too soon, and the work had only suffered minor setbacks. The craftsmen continued the next morning, assembling storm ladders and building primitive bridges to overcome the moat.

Morale rose upon hearing this, especially given the few casualties taken. To many, this was an early victory and a good sign of what was to come. Thus, despite the events of the previous night, the mood in camp was relaxed rather than tense, and none seemed anxious. Rather, the soldiers quickly resumed their routines to keep boredom at bay, which mostly meant games of chance involving coin.

Some of the noblemen found amusement in the same way, though others sparred, either to hone their skills or earn admiration. Especially the younger among the vassals to the duke of Monteau favoured this pastime, demonstrating their swordplay as entertainment for their liege. Whether this increased their standing in the eyes of the duke or if he even paid them much heed was difficult to say; the master of Monteau was not an expressive man, and he watched his vassals spar with little emotion on his face or in his voice.

Others among the noblemen in camp had joined Monteau’s company as well; some to join in the exertions, others to watch. Boredom was not necessarily the only reason that many drifted towards the duke’s quarters; as ruler of a powerful duchy, none commanded as many troops in the army of Ealond save for the king himself.

Another bout ended to the sound of cheers and scorn, depending on the allegiance of the spectators. One young man, having acquitted himself well so far, looked around at the small crowd with confidence. “Anyone else who dares to face me?”

“Montmer, I have never known you to back down from a challenge,” Verbonne exclaimed, elbowing his friend.

Thanks to his companion’s gesture, Damien nearly dropped the apple in his hand. With an annoyed look at Verbonne, he took a bite of his fruit. “I am eating.”

“That seems to be all the good lord of Montmer does,” declared the young beorn who stood as victor in the last fight, and he was rewarded with derisive laughter. “If he wields a sword half as well as his meat knife, those islanders are in trouble!”

Verbonne looked at the baron. “You are not going to stand for that, are you?” His words were overshadowed by his grin.

Damien sighed. “Fine. We might as well get it over with.” He took another, hefty bite of his apple and threw the remainder into Verbonne’s hands. Drawing his sword, he stepped into the open square that served as fighting pit. 

His opponent raised sword and shield in response. “You should arm yourself with a ward as well, old man,” he suggested.

“Just attack,” Damien told him.

Shrugging, the beorn did so. He took one step forward and brought his sword in a swift arch from above, aimed at Damien’s shoulder. The blow fell with sufficient force to throw a man onto his back, should it land. Meanwhile, the beorn kept his shield ready to defend.

Damien, unburdened by heavy armour or a shield of his own, crouched low. His enemy’s strike, easy to foresee, missed him; meanwhile, the former Templar could swing his own sword at the beorn’s knee, too low for any shield to guard.

Out of balance from his forward stance, the beorn’s knee collapsed under him. Before he could regain his footing, Damien rose and followed up with a kick to the stomach, and his attacker fell to the ground.

Sheathing his sword, the baron of Montmer turned towards Verbonne, who threw his apple to him.

“Impressive, lord baron,” the duke of Monteau declared.

“I trained as a knight,” Damien remarked. “Swordplay every day for fourteen years from age seven.” He cast a disdainful look at the beorn getting back on his feet. “You better pray that no knight awaits you on the city walls.”

“And be thankful Lord Montmer fights on our side,” Verbonne added with a grin.

“Big words from someone who lets his companion do all the fighting,” the beorn said with anger towards the count.

“Watch your tongue before I take it,” Damien exclaimed with a menacing voice, taking a sudden step towards the offending nobleman with one hand on his sword hilt.

“Peace,” declared Monteau. “There can be dignity in defeat, but you display none at present,” he told his vassal.

“I fight for your honour, my lord,” the beorn protested.

“Of all the reasons to fight, that may be the poorest,” the duke said. “I would be an ill liege to demand you lay down your life on such grounds.” Several expressed their agreement, and it became clear the day’s entertainment had ended; soon after, the small crowd dispersed.

~~~~

In contrast to his vassals and soldiers seeking entertainment, the king seemed content to sit in his tent and brood. He rarely had company, even though many might seek an audience, hoping to gain favour with the king or perhaps insight into his plans; Rainier refused them all and only saw those he summoned. His primary company, besides the servant tending to his needs, was Guilbert, appearing each evening with news of the camp.

“Your suspicions were true, Your Majesty,” Guilbert said after giving a deep bow. “The duke of Monteau cannot be trusted.”

“I knew it,” Rainier muttered. “Leave us,” he added, directed at his servant, who complied. “What did he say?” he asked of Guilbert.

“The duke coats his words in caution, but their meaning remains apparent. He does not support Your Majesty fighting this war, and he said as much for all to hear.”

The king threw his goblet aside. “Impertinent bastards! Why does none of them understand that for Ealond to prosper, to be strong, safe from our enemies, we must have Herbergja!”

“Your Majesty is wise to see this. Sadly, Your Majesty’s vassals are less clearsighted.”

“If I did not need their soldiers, I would have all their heads adorn the city gate next to old man Belvoir,” Rainier said with seething voice.

“The duke only dares to speak ill of Your Majesty because of his army,” Guilbert claimed. “But now the engineers have finished their work, perhaps we may hit two nails with one strike of the hammer.”

~~~~

The following day, the king summoned the noblemen in the camp. Most could guess the reason; everyone with a care to find out knew that the siege engineers had completed the storm ladders and the rolling bridges, on which the former might be deployed.

Once his vassals and their vassals had gathered before his tent, the king appeared, flanked by his guards and Guilbert. “The time has come,” Rainier spoke, letting his voice resonate. “This incursion of islanders on Ealond’s soil will end!”

A few scattered affirmations among the crowd could be heard.

“It is an honour for us all to be here,” the king continued. “But the greatest honour is reserved for those who lead the charge. I could not place such trust in any but the foremost of my vassals, Duke Monteau, and his men.”

Some responded with cheers; as for the duke himself, he bowed his head, but expressed no opinion through voice or face.

“Of course, Ealond is blessed with many warriors of great strength and renown,” Rainier spoke again. “We have all heard of the exploits by the baron of Montmer. Thus, I have chosen him to be first on the walls with his men. Likewise, the count of Verbonne will be given this honour.”

“No.” The flat refusal caused those nearby to turn and stare at Damien, and murmurs broke out.

“Finally, I have chosen – what did you say?” Disbelief gave way to anger in the king’s voice.

“I am done with this war. I am going home,” the baron of Montmer declared.

“You spineless coward!” Rainier spat the words out. “I show you the highest honour, and you dare to refuse your king?”

“I have been first on the walls before you were born, Your Majesty,” Damien replied with equal disdain. “But my men are peasants. I lead them up those ladders, they will be slaughtered for nothing.”

“Pathetic! The great warrior Damien of Montmer is not only a coward, but he hides behind peasants!” the king sneered. “As if they have any purpose but to fight for their lord!”

“Their purpose is to work my lands,” the baron declared with his own temper flaring up. “My fields barely have seed as half my serfs died fighting against Belvoir!”

“Not to mention your father and brother!” Verbonne interjected.

“Right, them as well.” It took Damien a moment before he continued, his voice grew loud once more. “I will not see my harvest rot because a king with no understanding of war commanded all my serfs to die!”

“I am your liege! You are sworn to my service, yet you prove yourself an oath-breaker once again!”

“I always keep my oaths!” Damien roared. “In my life, I have twice sworn allegiance, to the high king and the archon. Neither of those men are here.”

“Guards, seize the traitor!”

Swifter than most could blink, Damien’s hand lay on his sword hilt and had drawn the blade three inches. “Any of you fools try, your heads will greet your feet.”

The guards aimed their spears at the baron, exchanging looks; none seemed willing to be the first to approach.

“Montmer is right,” declared the duke of Monteau. “The islanders never caused harm to me or mine. I also have fields to sow and harvest, and my men have families they must feed with those fields.”

“Yeah!” yelled Verbonne. “To Hel with the king!” His cry was picked up by others. Tension rose until it appeared that it might ignite into bloodshed. The king retreated behind his guards, who stood outnumbered by the scores of noblemen, many of them reaching for their own weapons; hearing the commotion, soldiers loyal to either side appeared from the rest of the camp.

“I am going home,” Damien declared loudly, letting his blade fall back into its sheath. He turned around, showing his back to the king and the spears aimed at him. As he began to walk away, the crowd parted before him. The outbursts of anger from the noblemen died down, watching him leave. One by one, they did the same. Gradually, the crowd dispersed as dukes, counts, and barons each went to their own quarters. Soon after, most of them were breaking camp.

~~~~

Over the next weeks, the cities, towns, and villages of western Ealond experienced a curious sight. The same army that had passed through their lands not long ago now travelled the other direction. Before, it had been many small streams of soldiers merging to form one river; this time, it was the reverse, as the noblemen and their followers broke into different directions, each seeking his home. More than one hurried his men along into a forced march; it was still early in spring, and those who returned swiftly could lay aside their arms and turn from soldiers to serfs in time to sow the fields.

As for the king, he returned to Fontaine in humiliation. Word had arrived ahead of him. His failure to subjugate the young duke of Belvoir last year had already cast aspersions on his rule. That one vassal could oppose the king and keep his title and lands seemed an ill portend, many had whispered; now people spoke openly on the streets of how the king’s vassals had turned their back on him. Truth became diluted into rumours. Many stories flourished regarding what had happened at the siege camp. Some believed that it was only a few that had abandoned the war, and the siege of Herbergja had been lifted due to other circumstances, while others spoke of imminent rebellion and that soon, the king’s head would grace that of the old duke of Belvoir above the city gate.

Regardless of truth, one thing became apparent. The king had lost the support of his vassals and could no longer rely on them. He had barely returned to Fontaine when calamitous news reached the capital. The armies of Alcázar had made landfall and begun laying siege to Portesur, and when Rainier summoned the lords of Ealond to gather in defence of the realm, few heeded the call. Damien of Montmer was not among them; instead, he spent his time and silver building a temple to Austre in the woods of his holding, visiting each day to see how the construction progressed.

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