Audemar nearly strode on before he realized that the salutation was meant for him, not his father. “Yes?” he asked.
“The courier has arrived in the War Tent.”
My brothers can wait. Audemar made an abrupt turn to his right, as did his Right Captain and guards. They sloshed through a narrow path that took them directly to the center of the camp. Mud as thick as paste clung to their boots, hampering their speed as they came upon a red three-peaked pavilion. From within, the hard voices of dozens slammed against one another, each baron inside speaking over the other. Warnings and rebukes turned to cries and shouts. The tumult spilled forth to meet Audemar as a guard opened the tent flap for him.
With his entrance, the crowd hushed. Audemar squinted as his sight adjusted to the dimness of the pavilion, lit by the roaring blazes of half a dozen braziers.
“Your Majesty,” said the huddled voices of Marlish barons, nearly all at once, though a few trailed the initial volley. The mass bowed as every nobleman made a fist that they then placed over their hearts.
Audemar returned the gesture. “Mar be good.” He scanned the crowd. Every Marlish nobleman who had accompanied him to the continent seemed to be present. His newly-appointed treasurer, Baron Thybalt, of Har-Kin Giscard. Baron Gale of Har-Kin Mallory, his family’s most ardent supporters. Then there were the lords of Har-Kin Boivin, along with those of Hamage, Nevishold, Droigg, and many others.
Too many. Such numbers never coalesced so quickly and stilled so swiftly due to good news.
“Now, what news have we received?” he asked nonetheless.
The barons near the front exchanged anxious glances while those behind turned to the rear. In the back, the crowd parted to make way for a lone courier, a slender Marlishman with a mop of sandy hair and a freckled face. No more than sixteen, the lad stepped forward, albeit hesitantly as every baron along with the King watched him approach.
“Your Grace,” the courier said nervously.
“Your Majesty,” Audemar’s Right Captain corrected him. The knight fell in line beside the King, glaring at the young man until he lowered his gaze.
Audemar raised his hand. “Sir Lijart, please. Dismiss with the formalities.” The King nodded to the courier. “Your news?”
“Sire, the Tarshade Forest . . . the army there . . . the one you sent. It fell.”
Murmurs and chatter erupted. Baron Rayvenn of Har-Kin Warci, as portly as he was raucous, shouted over the clamor. “You told us that already. What do you mean ‘fell’? Details. Give us the details.”
The courier sighed, clearly distraught at the concept of speaking about the incident. “They, whoever they were, surrounded us last night. From nowhere they came. Then everywhere. They overwhelmed the sentries on duty before swarming through the camp. They lit the tents on fire. We retreated to a set of hillocks on the other side of the stream. That’s when my lord, Baron Marvynn, sent me here to give word . . .”
He paused to inhale, gripping his side as he did so. Only then, his sight having adjusted to the low light, did the King note the ash and grime on the lad’s face along with his disheveled clothing. He fought to come here. “Grab a seat for him,” Audemar commanded. At once, an attendant appeared with a wooden stool for the courier, who gladly sat. Another servant, anticipating the King’s next request, produced a cup of wine for the man, who drank thirstily.
“Did anyone else make it out of the camp?” Audemar asked.
The courier gulped the last of his wine. He looked up to his sovereign. He need not shake his head. His look – both of mourning and shame – confirmed all.
Audemar straightened, his gaze never leaving the young man.
“The Tarshade Forest is not more than two days’ ride from here,” Baron Thybalt said. “We must mobilize our defenses and get you to safety.”
“Bah,” Baron Gale chimed. “His Majesty is a Saliswater. Battle-hardened since birth.”
“Is it true?” Baron Oweyn asked of the courier. “Your encampment, was it only a ride of two days?”
“I suppose so, my lord. Though it’s hard saying, as we were attacked at night–”
“How many?” Oweyn pressed further. “The enemy? Tell us their numbers.”
“And their sigil?” cried another baron.
“Did they have heavy infantry?” asked a third.
“Quiet!” Audemar bellowed.
His voice nearly shook the pavilion canopy and flaps, startling the audience of barons to silence. Their attention fell upon their king as he strode right up to courier to grip him by the shoulders.
“Go directly to my pavilion across from here, the one with the golden canopy. There, give a full account of the Battle of the Tarshade Forest to my scribes.” Audemar patted the courier on the back as he left before addressing the assembly of barons. “You will have an account of what befell our countrymen in due time.”
That promise did little to satisfy the curiosity of the audience, who chattered amongst themselves. Their words, both the clear and indistinct, carried the tone of the disgruntled, which only fueled Audemar’s frustration.
The King leaned into his Right Captain. “Clear this room, save my War Counsel.”
“Go! Leave!” Lijart shouted. “Make ready your soldiers and guards. Word will be sent to you via our generals once countermeasures have been made.”
The barons grumbled but complied. They filed from the pavilion, leaving only Audemar, Lijart, and the King’s generals: Baron Conandus, Baron Alec, and Baron Philkin.
Once the tent cleared, Audemar took a seat on the courier’s stool, resting his elbows on his knees. “How many?” Audemar asked, referring to those encamped in the Tarshade Forest.
Baron Conandus paced among his peers. “Nearly eight hundred. A tenth of our fighting force. A sizeable loss, especially if Baron Marvynn was killed rather than captured.”
“Psst, Baron Marvynn, captured?” Alec said. “That old bull would rather eat a morningstar than surrender and be held for ransom.”
“Aye, stubborn he was. But one of our best commanders,” Philkin added, placing his right fist over his heart. “Har-Kin Rorkke won’t be pleased with the loss of their favorite son.”
“None of us are pleased,” Audemar said as he rubbed the bridge of his nose between his fingertips.
“Sire,” Conandus began. “As troubling as this news is, I beg of you, consider your safety. With you and your main army so close to the battle lines, we should pull back–”
“I thank you for your concern, Baron Conandus. It is not misplaced. And I am not unaware of the dangers. However, the safety of one – even a monarch – is of little importance right now. What matters now is survival. Our survival.”
Audemar rose from the stool to approach the oaken table at the rear of the pavilion. There, the primary map of northwestern Colinne laid, with wooden pieces strewn about to mark the forces – both allies and enemies – situated throughout the terrain. Audemar leaned over the map as his subordinates collected beside him.
“The courier will provide what details he remembers, but his mind is battle-scarred, so information on how many – or even who – attacked his camp will be scant, at best. The only facts we know for certain are twofold. One, we must consider the information we have gathered to date on the terrain.”
“And two?” Conandus asked.
“We know ourselves. Our army. Our forces here.”
Audemar turned back to the map. “Baron Marvynn, may Mar bless him, took his position in the Tarshade Forest to gather intelligence on the eastern front, to be closest to the fields of battle should our conflict move to that area. Well, they did, and the lord of Har-Kin Rorkke paid the price for it. But not before he provided his reports.” Audemar grabbed the scrolls, six in total, piled on the left edge of the table. “His scribes recorded in abundance on the waterways, land, and trees of the Tarshade and beyond. Little stands before our enemy and the Tarshade Forest save for a few streams and hills. They will make their way here with little to stop them. But beyond the Tarshade, even further east of its woods . . .”
Audemar’s fingers slid over to the edge of the map, where the painted image of trees ended. He grabbed one of the scrolls to his left, of beige vellum, which he promptly unfurled. The painting within, consisting of broad strokes and jagged lines, illustrated a fractured landscape of ravines and gullies.
“. . . lies shattered ground,” Audemar continued. “Whatever force made its way to Marvynn’s encampment did so only after traversing rough ground, pockmarked by Mar Himself. Such an army who defeated Rorkke suffers from the pride of victory. They will not require reinforcements, and even if accomplices try to send support, they will need to cross the serrated earth bordering the Tarshade.
“Our camp would take half a day to pack should we order a retreat. The land to the north we know to be laden with mountain kin loyal to no one, while that to the south and west presents rocky and narrow forces that would constrict our forces and render what numerical advantage we have useless. Yes, we can stand our ground. Deepen our trenches. Lay more spikes. Or we can do that which they will not suspect.”
The last thought sat uneasily with those listening. Even Sir Lijart, always the King’s optimist, shifted his weight from one leg to another.
“A bold move,” Philkin conceded. “And unexpected. An ambush for an ambush.”
“We will send our best into the woods, in a bull-and-horns formation, towards the Tarshade, to meet the enemy head-on. The rest of us will be only a step back, hidden in every depression, outcropping, and grove to provide support as needed. The hell Marvynn suffered came from the woods. Let us hide there and flush it out, send it back.”
Hesitantly, the four nodded.
“You’ll need your brother’s men for the onset of this assault,” Alec advised. “His army took position in this area first. He has the battle-hardened, the tested, of this area.”
Audemar needn’t be told which brother his general referred to, the one they all preferred. “Aye,” the King said. “Osgar can lead the vanguard, while Wilfred can command the reserves.” If the barons will allow my latter brother the honor. “Make preparations.”
“Bloody fool.” Still, I pity him.
Audemar clipped his heels into his mount, sending the steed deeper into the canopied forest. From a low angle, dappled sunlight fell upon him. The hour is late. The sun will set soon.
As will our hopes.
Hours had passed since Audemar had given the command to counterstrike the assailants with an excursion toward the Tarshade Forest. With haste, his three generals at hand had mobilized a formidable force of light cavalry to enter the woods first with a second wave of pavisers and pole-men to support them. The troops set, he had awaited word on his sibling. And waited. Prince Wilfred, his youngest brother, had arrived shortly after summoned. In Osgar’s unexplained absence – which stretched into hours – Audemar momentarily considered sending Wilfred to lead the vanguard. Logic prevailed over haste, though. Wilfred has not the grit. Nor the instincts. If he enters the forest first, he will fall. We all will.
The third hour since Audemar’s command set in, and with it, restlessness. The King sent out couriers and squires to inquire, albeit gingerly, on the Prince’s whereabouts. A quick search of the grounds revealed not only the departure of the King’s brother but of his personal guard. A more in-depth investigation, carried out by Sir Lijart himself, finally revealed the reason for Osgar’s absence.
That same reason now spurred the King onward.
The canopy became thicker. More branches and leaves above melded into one another, shielding the woods below from the sanctity of light. Dimness and shadows concealed a root here and a stone there, making the journey more fraught with the peril of being tripped or thrown. Nonetheless, Audemar quickened his ride, slapping the heels of his boots into the side of his steed with little concern for the safety of his horse or himself.
I must find him. I must . . .
“Your Majesty! Over here!”
The horse nearly threw him as Audemar yanked on the reins. The destrier shot up to his hind legs and whinnied. Remarkably, Audemar remained in his saddle, settling back in it with a thud as his horse returned to all fours. Undaunted, the King looked over his shoulder to find his Right Captain ushering him to the right. Audemar pulled the reins in that direction, as Lijart rode to catch up to him, his voice growing hushed as he came close.
“Sire, the Prince, I saw him.”
“Then lead me –”
“I will . . . up to a point. Then I shall stand aside. To allow you two a moment.”
Audemar straightened. The last thing his Right Captain would ever consider proposing is to leave his side, even when the King was among other royals.
“He needs you, Your Majesty.”
Sir Lijart extended his hand, motioning the King forward. Audemar complied.
He spotted his rich golden mane first. Parted down the middle, the hair fell to his shoulders. Then his brow came into view. Followed by his eyes.
At that, Audemar dismounted.
Handing the reins to Lijart, Audemar continued without him. He passed his brother’s personal guard, who held the Prince within their sights but respectfully kept their distance. They turned their gaze to their sovereign and bowed, though their peripheral vision remained focused on Osgar.
Audemar waved them off. They did as commanded, their stoicism fractured as each face held tones both somber and dark.
Within a few steps, Audemar saw why.
Osgar sat on a squat boulder, hunched over. His battleaxe laid with its butt to the ground, the blades sheathed as they leaned against his chest. He touched it not as his elbows dug into his thighs. In one hand, he held a dirk, the blade of which gleamed in the single shaft of light that fell upon the Prince. His other hand stayed still, open, as Osgar ran the tip over his palm and down his exposed wrist, which bled.
Osgar glanced at Audemar before returning his attention to the blade.
“I saw the news you received . . .”
Audemar’s voice faded, so as to allow Osgar the chance to respond. The Prince neither offered a word nor a look in reply.
The King recalled the little he had read in haste upon one of the squires discovering the letter Osgar had received from Marland. The set of homing doves the mages had trained on the front returned earlier that morning with announcements from the island. Most of the correspondences were of a military nature, though on occasion they brought word of the events of Court.
Such was the case with one letter addressed directly to Prince Osgar, as it told of the passing of his stillborn child and his wife.
Osgar dug the point of his dirk deeper into his flesh, sending a river of blood dripping down the length of his forearm.
Audemar reached for the dirk. Osgar met his eyes. His free hand rotated directly beneath the sharpened tip of his blade. Audemar halted.
“Do not try me, Brother.”
“I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“It was a son. The lad my love bore.”
“She was so happy when she gave me the news. That night before we sailed. She glowed, she did. Proud to be carrying my son. My son.”
Osgar hung his head. Eyes unseen, Audemar nonetheless noted his tears as they fell to the earth.
Audemar kneeled, lowering himself to look upon Osgar’s pained face.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
Osgar lifted his head at once. The dirk sank from his meaty paw to clatter against the boulder. He fell to his knees before his brother, allowing his battleaxe to fall to his side.
“What?” he asked.
“Marland. Let us return. It has been almost seven months. We are overdue.”
“But . . . What of the front? We are at the forest’s edge, within reach of, of –”
“We are in a stalemate, Osgar. Every fool and attendant in our midst knows it, let alone our soldiers and commanders. We lost the Tarshade Forest. Again. Sure, Conandus and the others will retake it. Perhaps this time we can even take the lands beyond the ravines if Mar blesses our assault. Then what? Our supply lines will grow thin and more susceptible to attack. To traverse the land, trails will need to be widened, bridges and watchtowers built, then manned. Such events will take time, something this bloody war seems to drag out. And as that happens, more conflicts will arise, whether here or in greater Colinne, or Volkmar, or Ibia . . .”
Dear Mar, Audemar thought as he once again considered the staggering weight of the conflict, will it ever end?
A firm hand came to rest on Audemar’s shoulder. The King looked up to find Osgar staring back at him.
“You would endure the damnation of the barons, the risk of the Conclave usurping your Throne, our dynasty, so that I may grieve?”
“Only if you will it.”
Osgar sighed. Whether he relented to the offer or rejected it, Audemar could not say. For all the ambiguity of the reaction, however, the King knew the gesture had appeased his brother. For the moment.
Before the warrior returned.
Osgar the Fierce – eyes keen, instincts focused – gripped the shaft of his battleaxe. In one fell motion, he unsheathed both the blades of its head. He pivoted on the balls of his feet to look behind and scour the thick brush.
“Four songbirds,” he whispered, his words barely audible to Audemar. “They were singing when I arrived. Back and forth, chirping in the distance. Now they’re silent. Gone.”
Audemar, remaining on one knee, slowly unsheathed his sword, careful not to let the slide of steel against leather make a sound. Not that it mattered.
For the attack had begun.
Bolts sliced through the silence, the whizzing of their arrowheads and shafts like wasps on the offensive. Audemar spotted one as it zipped past his left eye – a shot too close – before a second broke through his breastplate.
Osgar tackled Audemar. He lay atop to shield him from the next onslaught of projectiles that flew overhead.
Blinking, Audemar wedged his left arm out from under his brother to paw at the bolt. It protruded from the upper-right section of his armor, just below the leather strap fitted over his shoulder. The tip had come in at an angle – not as a direct shot – and now poked up from his flesh. Audemar wrapped his fingers around the shaft and massaged it free from his plate. He allowed himself a sigh, knowing the danger was far from over.
With the last projectile sailing past, Osgar rolled off Audemar. He yanked his warhorn from his belt and blew.
Oooo . . . Oooo . . . Aaaaa-Ooooo . . .
Two short blasts followed by a long one. The distress call of Marland.
Those guards of Osgar’s and the ones who accompanied Sir Lijart need not another signal nor command to know what to do. From behind the trees and bushes they appeared, a tide of Marlish courage and discipline only the finest training could forge. Audemar managed to hear the quick clanks in the hidden forest beyond, surmising that the enemy worked desperately to reload their crossbows. A few more bolts flew, but nothing like the wave they had witnessed. In the Marlish blitz, the guards had closed the gap between themselves and their assailants. The time of hand-to-hand combat had come.
Arming swords unsheathed. Twigs and short branches snapped. Men grunted. Then yelled. All noises quick and instinctual stumbled over one another, the sharp chords of battle.
Audemar, hardly conscious of his own efforts, found himself on his feet, rushing toward the chaos. Before him, steps ahead, raced Osgar.
The man strode with his battleaxe, possessed. He held his weapon in his right hand. Most soldiers would have needed two hands to do so. But not Osgar. The Fierce had rightly earned his reputation as a proven, unapologetic warrior. Now, as ever, he would show their enemies the reason for his namesake.
Osgar spotted the first combatants in range, two assailants fighting one of Audemar’s guards. The guard had suffered a wound to his right leg, barely able to deflect the blows that landed upon him. Osgar cut diagonally from the trail, heading directly for the two. They scarcely noticed the Prince before he cleaved through their armor, cutting clean the arm of one and hacking the neck of the other. As the blood gushed from the freshly slain, he raced to the next opportunity, a crossbowman who held the Prince in his sights. Undeterred by the threat, Osgar belted out a war cry to inject the fear of Mar into the man. Whether it worked or not, the bolt missed, rushing past the head of Osgar’s battleaxe as it rose, then fell, straight down into the man, splitting his clavicle and the ribs below.
That last attack slowed the Fierce, as the axe head became stuck in the broken bones and mangled flesh of the attacker. Osgar kicked and kicked at the corpse until it fell free from his weapon to slump to the ferns below. Catching his breath, the Prince glanced at his brother, who also paused.
“Are you well, Audemar?”
The King nodded. He surveyed the scene around them. In the blink of an eye, Sir Lijart and the guards had succeeded in their counterassault. The one-on-one skirmishes between the attackers and the guards had all ended, with the Marlish emerging victorious. Only a few of the enemy managed to retreat into the woods, with a handful of guards in pursuit.
“We were fortunate,” Audemar chimed.
“Bah! You can keep your fortune. This is my fate.” Osgar held up his axehead, admiring it.
That is what I’m afraid of. With your family gone, what do you have to live for?
“I am here for you, Brother,” Audemar said, as if in response to his own question.
“I see that,” Osgar replied.
“Will you continue to fight by my side?”
Osgar hesitated, the weight of the morning’s news suddenly returning to him. He groped for the sheath of his dirk, which remained empty, the blade lost in the commotion. Noting its absence brought a curl to his lips, a hint of a smirk.
“Aye, my liege and my kin. I will fight. For you.”
In the distance, from the direction of the Marlish encampment, the rumble of hooves echoed. Reinforcements. Audemar, relieved, lowered the tip of his sword.
“We should –”
Blood splattered his breastplate. He fell into a defensive stance before realizing the droplets had come from the neck of the enemy corpse before them, a neck bearing the slashed ends of sinew and tissue. Osgar, with blood dripping from the edges of his axehead, stared down at the fleshy, red brawn. Then he shifted his attention to the severed head beside his foot. He lifted it by the hair before turning to his brother.
“What are you doing?” Audemar asked.
“Whatever it takes.” Osgar raised the head to inspect it. The face had all the distinctive features of the Volkmar: dark hair, rough stubble, a crooked nose, and fair skin. Osgar, seemingly unimpressed, grunted. “It’ll make a fine trophy for the piked fence around our perimeter. When I return to camp, I’ll issue the order to all those under my command: No quarter for those Volkmar caught or injured. All will be beheaded, their tops placed on the piked posts for their brethren to see.”
Audemar clenched his jaw, breathing through his teeth. The Volkmar often did the same to imprisoned soldiers, as a way to intimidate their enemies. In the early years of the Century War, the Marlish had returned the favor in kind until the Saliswater monarch King Aethelrik banned the practice midway through the conflict.
Now, a prince of Marland – not its king – would reinstate the barbaric act of retribution.
Osgar, perhaps sensing Audemar’s coming protest, strode up to him. Audemar, disturbed by the head he so casually carried, fought the urge to step back.
“You asked that I fight for you. So let me fight for you,” Osgar said. “I learned today I lost a wife and child. My legacy – not the Saliswater one, but mine – is at an end. Wilfred, Mar bless him, is a runt unable to sire a halfling, let alone an heir. Synnova is barren. That leaves you – our King – the only hope for the Saliswater dynasty to live on. And live on it will.”
Osgar raised the head. He pointed at it with his axe. “He would have done the same to you. But so long as I’m alive, I will not let that happen. We will win this war, brother, by any means. We will scare them pale as ghosts. They will shit themselves. We will crush their spirits. Drink their blood if we have to. All so that you may emerge from this bloody fight victorious, to return home and have sons. Marlish sons, who will grow to become men of Kin Saliswater.”
Finding no gesture or word of objection from his brother, Osgar moved past. He lifted the head high enough for his remaining guards to see. Like Audemar, they froze, shocked at the brutality of the deed. Entertained by their disgust, Osgar chuckled as he glanced back at the King.
“Remember,” the Fierce began. “Whatever it takes.”
Audemar turned to the decapitated corpse, which sat leaning against a tree. He looked to his blade, which still ran scarlet from the battle. He knelt to wipe his sword on the grass before he sheathed it, moving slower than necessary. For the words of his brother – never more prescient – rang through his head.
We will win this war.
Men of Kin Saliswater.
Remember.Whatever it takes.