Rhutgard shivered and wrapped his cloak around him as he squatted by the fire. They were too close to the mountains for his comfort.
Of course, none of this was to his comfort. Merridon was dead and all he had been able to do to show he was in mourning was wear this black cloak, sent from Fairview. Not even a state ceremony had been held for his son, his first born. Rhutgard took a deep breath, remembering yet again the day Merridon came into the world, small, sickly, crying.
Even so, had Rhutgard been home, he would have insisted upon a small, tasteful ceremony to see his son to his grave. So odd, he thought, not for the first time. So odd, it was almost as if Merridon had held on until Rhutgard had departed. Stanyard assured him that all was done according to Merridon’s wishes and Principea had everything firmly in hand. He even noted that Mirelle was assisting Principea, and for that, Rhutgard was grateful. He just wished he’d been there by his son’s side at the last.
This miserable, biting cold…. They had not yet reached the EverWinters, but they would by morning. And then, with the might and main of all three countries represented, Delsynth, Ghiverny, and Romeny, representing the Eastern Alliance, they would attack the Ormons who were waiting for them.
The better part of the Stordish infantry had died in the Battle of Rossdon, as Gerard’s troops referred to it. Kendrick, Driscoll, and the rest of the War Council believed more Ormons would soon follow down the Northern Country Crosslands and into Ghiverny, if they were not already in Ghiverny now. But here at the foot of the EverWinters, they had nearly two hundred thousand men, a fair portion of whom were Stafford Spears.
“Father,” Kendrick greeted him quietly as he sat down on a log before the fire. He, too, wore a black cloak to symbolize his mourning Merridon.
“Kendrick, you stay away from the main line of fighting tomorrow, do you understand me?” Rhutgard told him. “I know how well you fight, and that you can take care of yourself, but I am telling you: stay away from the main line of fighting tomorrow. Stay with the generals instead.”
His tone would brook no argument, nor was he in the mood for one.
Kendrick grimaced but nodded, giving him none. Perhaps he understood why. Rhutgard had just lost one son. He didn’t want to lose another out here on the battlefield.
The mood on the night before a battle was always a morose one. Men stayed to their fires and talked lowly, rested while they could, prayed if they prayed, and stared into the flames for peace. Well he remembered these nights, thinking of the Twenty Years War.
Kendrick. So like him – he looked just like Rhutgard had at that age. Rhutgard wondered what Kendrick was thinking as he stared into the fire, and what Keldrick was thinking, where and how he was, and that hopefully he had found success in his post as Ambassador to the Eastern Alliance….
The most frigid part of the day – dawn. Rhutgard poked his head out of the tent and found Kendrick preparing porridge. Imagine that, he thought with wonder. A month ago, Kendrick would never have accepted porridge for breakfast, far less made it. Pride for his son filled him.
In silence, Kendrick handed him a bowl of porridge and scooped another bowlful for himself. They said nothing as they ate and Rhutgard relished the heat of the bowl in his hands, for the morning air was crisp and biting. Today, they would see snow, he had no doubt. He just hoped his troops were ready for it.
As he was shaving, he caught Kendrick watching.
“We are at war, Father. Why are you even bothering?”
So Rhutgard said, “Your grandfather and your great-grandfather always kept their beards neat, as do I. One day, you, too, will be the Eastern Shield, Kendrick, and your face will be the first thing people see. If you hide it behind a barbarian bush, people will notice. If you take the time to take care of yourself, people will notice that as well. Those are the words of your grandfather’s father.
“I may meet the man who commands this Ormon Army today. If I, as the Eastern Shield, were to appear unkempt, why, that would cast a poor impression of my leadership abilities upon me.”
“I haven’t much of a beard to shave,” Kendrick admitted ruefully. It cost him some pride to say that aloud, Rhutgard thought with amusement.
“No, not at first. What you have, you shape, and then, when it comes time, you trim it.” He wiped his razor clean.
“I hope Keldrick learns that, wherever he is,” said Kendrick, rubbing a hand over his thin beard.
“Something tells me that your brother has a lot on his shoulders as Eastern Alliance Ambassador, especially now that our troops have likely arrived. I’m sure that he is projecting a seemly appearance.”
“A word, a scrap of information! Why has he not sent a report?” demanded Kendrick.
“Son, you forget that your brother is serving at the Queen of Clemongard’s pleasure. Should she want to send a report, then she shall. Most notably, they are being attacked by both the Ormish and the Ambsells, by land and by sea, on more than one front. I believe he is likely too busy to send a bird or a runner just now. In war, updates can be few and far between,” he chided gently.
He knew Kendrick only wanted news that his twin was well, and probably more so than anyone else did, for they had not been parted for so long, nor been placed in such dangerous positions. Rhutgard worried for Keldrick as well, but believed in his other twin son’s cleverness and wit; his idea of staying on as Ambassador had grown on him and the troops were told to report directly to him when they arrived. But Rhutgard, too, hoped for news soon.
As the men were packing up Rhutgard’s tent, he heard murmurs among the men of The Wolf and The Berringer and guessed that Gerard and Driscoll were nearby.
“Rhudy, a good morning to you.” Gerard’s voice sounded tired.
“Rhutgard,” Driscoll nodded.
Rhutgard greeted them, welcoming them to what was left of the small camp that was being packed up as they stood there. Kendrick clasped arms with Dougall. A close friendship had formed between the two, for they had the commonality of both being Crown Princes and of an age together.
Driscoll eyed Rhutgard’s black fur and leather cloak, flapping in the chill wind.
“Rhutgard, I never said this prior to now, but I’m sorry for your loss. You’ve lost a child and I know how that feels. And you know who that child was, because you will always be a son-by-law to me through her.” Driscoll paused for a few moments.
Rhutgard was taken aback at this and unsure what to say. Suddenly, he felt a Prince again, cowering before his father-by-law, the King of Delsynth, who was only marrying off his daughter Hennolyn because she would be married to the Eastern Shield-to be and because it was the current Eastern Shield’s desire. Driscoll had petrified him back in those days.
Then Driscoll said, “In fact, all of us are family here, this entire circle, united by blood, law, and Alliance. And we ride off today to fight a foe who has over and over attempted to divide us. So I have this – a little something for us –” And Driscoll withdrew an engraved steel flask from his cloak.
Gerard immediately grinned. “Where did you get that, Berringer?”
“A Colonel whose life I saved gave it to me, if it’s the flask you’re talking about. The bourbon, on the other hand….” And Driscoll permitted himself a smile of his own. “A little bourbon, to warm us up and start the journey off. And a toast. To family.” He held the flask up as he said this, then sipped from the flask before he passed it around.
They each sipped from the flask. Ah, that Delsynth bourbon – it would burn a hole through your throat but it was damn good stuff. To family… all of his, thought Rhutgard, thinking of home and his wife and children.
“Are we ready to do this?” asked Driscoll as he accepted the flask from Kendrick, whose eyes were blinking from the strength of the bourbon. Rhutgard wanted to laugh. If Kendrick was going to be Eastern Shield one day, he would need to hold his liquor.
“Yes,” said both Rhutgard and Gerard together.
“Very good. Then let us away.”
And there they were, at the foot of the EverWinter Mountains. Ormons. Bloody bastards.
“How many of them do you make?” asked Gerard, his face stone.
“Fifty thousand, more or less,” replied Rhutgard.
“That’s if no more are hiding elsewhere. Fifty thousand is just what’s visible,” commented Driscoll.
Gerard said, “Look at them, just milling about down there. No defensive tactics.”
“You can bet an Ormish force that size knows we’re here,” observed Driscoll.
“Ideas?” asked Rhutgard.
Gerard scoffed. “We’ve lost enough men. That’s a ploy. The Battle of Rossdon took too many good men. Let us sit here and wait for them to make a move.”
Driscoll said, “They want us down there. Don’t forget the men they have following up on the Northern Countries Crosslands. We have no idea the size of that army. We may be two hundred thousand, but that host may be two hundred and fifty or more.”
“If I may, Your Majesty…?” asked Kendrick.
He had learned to only speak when given permission, something else Rhutgard was proud of him for.
“Captain Firthing, you have an idea?”
“Sending our entire force down there would be a mistake, I think. We don’t know where the rest of their troops are, should they have any, nor do we know the size of the army they are sending here. If we send all of our troops down there, then we are playing right into their hand. They want us to think they are only ‘milling around’ and unprepared. They want us to think there are only fifty thousand, and perhaps there are only fifty thousand. My advice would be to send an assortment of our very best troops, say, sixty thousand down there, to meet them, some of that assortment to include Stafford Spears. And therefore, it will be an equal fight, rather than us ride down there, overtake them, and camp there, where we will be overtaken by an army from all sides and forced to fight with a mountain behind us and no way to retreat.”
Was that his Kendrick who made such sense?
Driscoll and Gerard nodded their assent.
He called for the nearest Sergeant and instructed him to bring the War Council with all haste. Kendrick had just planned the first attack of the EverWinters Battle.