Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur
24 Sy, 1014 B.Y.
The night sky was aglow with the fires raging among the closely-packed buildings across the river. Great columns of smoke boiled up into the night, obscuring the stars. Nochturon slowly marched across the sky, silent witness to the events transpiring in Magnus’ poorest quarter. You could hear the screams.
The light from the fires illuminated the Laraka, mighty even this far upriver. The silhouettes of biremes, and the occasional trireme sitting at anchor near the middle of the river stood out in stark contrast to the masses of flame hungrily consuming all on the river’s eastern bank. The docks hard against the massive walls of the Old Districts on the western bank and the wreckage of what was Kheva’s Bridge were lit with torches. Sentries walked slowly back and forth in the torches’ light, alert for any sally by the enemy encamped but a league or two eastward.
The eastern half of Baranur’s capital was not totally occupied by the enemy. Five thousand troops of the Magnus Militia and the Legion of Death still manned the walls of the New Districts. Those troops did not need torchlight — the fires sweeping the Fifth Quarter were racing towards the fortifications the soldiers of Baranur now occupied.
High up on the ramparts of the Old Districts, on a section of wall that formed part of the defences of the Royal Quarter itself, a man stood and watched. He was of slightly more-than-average height. He wore a black surcoat over a plain shirt and trews. A dagger rode on his hip and a squared cross with a black pearl set in its centre hung from a silver chain around his neck. The scar on his face running from the right side of his forehead down to his left cheek lent his face a sinister aspect in the flickering light of the torches atop the walls. He did not speak to the sentries nearby, merely stood there and stared across the river as half of Magnus died in fire and agony. Half of the city that was the heart of his adopted homeland. Half of the city that he was charged to protect and defend. He was Knight Commander of the Armies. His name was Sir Edward Sothos.
At six feet even, the figure that emerged from the tower onto the wall was tall for a man, even more so for a woman. She drew her cloak around herself and looked along the wall for someone. When she found the person for whom she was looking, she started unhurriedly toward him, nodding to the saluting sentries as she passed, her red hair catching the torchlight.
She stopped next to the man and looked out upon the fires on the east bank of the Laraka. The wind this high-up was cool, even for high summer, and she gathered her cloak more tightly around herself as she shivered. She glanced down at the man beside her, and, noting his expression — or lack thereof — she let out a sigh.
She looked away across the Laraka once more. “I thought I might find you here.”
The man did not move, did not turn his head, did not even change the position of his hands on the battlements. “You thought true, then,” he responded in a neutral voice.
“Do not do this to yourself, Edward,” she said, staring outward. “Come down.”
“I am not favourably disposed to argue with you this night, Commander,” Sir Edward stated in a cold voice.
Jan let out an exasperated breath and turned to face her friend and commander. “What good shall this do? Will your being here put out those fires?” she asked, pointing. “Will your being here make any difference to those across the river?”
Sir Edward turned his head to answer. “Mayhap not. It will satisfy, in some small measure, mine own honour.” Sir Edward indicated the fires raging on the far bank. “At the very least I owe it to those who have died because I failed them.”
Jan slapped the stone hard with her hand. “Failed! Gods’ Blood! Failed? How? How have you failed, Edward? It was not you who ordered us out to meet the enemy! It was not you who ran at the first sign the battle was going against us! If the King had not–”
“*Enough!*” Edward’s shout shattered the night like sword on shield, startling the sentries. “You forget your place, Commander Courymwen!”
Jan had not seen Sir Edward truly angry on very many occasions and the sight that greeted her now made her pale somewhat. She swallowed and held her ground. “Do I?” she asked in the same quiet tones with which she began the conversation. “You know I speak the truth, sir, you know it! I do not malign the King, I swear I do not! I am a member of The King’s Own, I would never speak ill of His Royal Majesty! It is not treason to look upon one’s commander in the cold light of reason and judge his actions. The King erred in putting Northfield before you and that is why we are faced with such an unhappy position as now presents itself.”
Edward said nothing, merely turned to stare across the river again. To those who knew him, his silence at Jan’s statements showed her arguments had struck their mark. “It does not matter. The duty was — *is* — mine and mine alone.”
Jan cursed under her breath, her hands curling into fists. She hated it when Edward got this way. She cared deeply for this foreigner who had become her dear friend, but there were times when his honour and sense of duty were absolutely aggravating.
She sighed, admitting defeat, and tried to salvage some sort of victory. “Will you not at least come down and get some sleep?” When she got no answer, she moved closer, laying her hand on his arm. “Please, sir,” she implored, “you have not slept in three days.” When Edward made as if to protest, she added, “What good will it do for the commander to be so fatigued that he cannot think clearly?”
Edward shifted his gaze to the small fleet of ships in the river. “It is fear,” he said quietly.
Edward placed his right hand over Jan’s and squeezed. “I am afraid we shall lose this battle.”
A cold feeling swept over Jan. She had not — *ever* — in the six years she had known this man heard him admit to fear. Not even at the news of the disaster of Shark’s Cove had he shown fear. “Surely we have force enough to hold until Knight Captain Westbrook arrives?”
Edward let out a small, despairing grunt of a laugh. “Martis is en route, true, but with not much force. The greater part of the army of the Southern Marches must, of necessity, remain in the South to contest with the forces of Beinison so present. There,” he said, pointing eastward, “but one or two leagues distant lie two-score thousand of the enemy’s best. We can muster five thousand on the far bank and an additional nine on this. Knight Captain Connall has indicated that he can raise no more troops from the North at short call, and short call is what we must be content with. Even were I to order General Verde to concentrate her cavalry on Magnus this instant, that would but add seven thousand to our tally. We would still be outnumbered as near as to two-to-one as makes no difference.”
Edward nodded at the far bank and spoke in a semi-detached monotone. “Untar has bigger siege engines than we have and more of them. In the morning, once the fires have burned themselves out, his troops shall swarm over the walls and take the New Districts. Once he has the far bank, he will move his siege engines to the shore and pound our fleet to dust. Once the ships are gone, he shall be able to cross the Laraka unopposed. He will surround us, besiege us, and starve us out.”
Sir Edward turned to face his aide and friend. “This army is the last we can muster. The fate of Magnus is the fate of Baranur.”
Jan tried to assume a cheerful air. “Well, staying awake worrying over it will do neither of us any good, will it?”
Edward nodded. “Let us go, then.” Jan smiled and turned to walk towards the tower. Edward looked one last time across the water then moved to follow.
Someone had grabbed a hold of Edward’s shoulder and was shaking him fiercely. Edward tried to twist out of his adversary’s grasp and when that proved to no avail, he lashed out, only to have his wrist enclosed in a grip of iron. Whomever it was seemed to shout at him.
Edward opened his eyes to find Captain Daniel Moore standing over him. Edward groaned and shut his eyes. “What is it, Daniel?” he asked in a groggy voice.
“You asked me to waken you before half-noon, sir,” Daniel answered in an apologetic voice.
Edward sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Is it that already?”, he enquired.
“Sorry, sir.” Daniel straightened. “Shall I leave you to sleep awhile yet?”
Edward smiled slightly, the scar seeming not so harsh as usual. “No, Daniel. Much as I would dearly love to do so, there is too much to do.” He opened his eyes and propped himself up on his elbows. “My compliments to King’s General Wainwright and would he assemble all unit commanders for Council of War. Also, go you to His Royal Majesty and would the King’s Grace, and whatever of his advisors he so determines, attend the council at the King’s pleasure.”
Daniel saluted and was halfway out the door when Edward called him back. “What of General Verde, Daniel?”
“She and her commanders arrived within the last bell or so, Your Excellency.”
“Good. Convey them to the council as well.”
Daniel nodded and left, shutting the door quietly behind him. Edward lowered himself back down onto his bed and sighed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was tempted, sorely tempted, to let himself fall back to sleep.
Edward lay there for several menes, working up the energy to get up and moving. With a sudden, decisive exhale of breath, he flung the bedclothes from him and made his way over to the large chest next to the stand on which his mail and gambeson hung. He opened the chest and selected a pair of brown trews. He put on the trews, belted them, and then pulled on a set of heavy leather boots sitting behind the chest. Next, he took the gambeson from its stand and shrugged himself into it. Finally, he removed his mail from its stand and spent the next several menes struggling into his armour.
Once Edward was satisfied that his mail was as comfortably seated as he could get it, he pulled on his surcoat, belted on his sword and dagger, and then put on both his chain of office as Knight Commander and his wreath of honour that marked him as a knight of Galicia.
He left his suite of rooms and walked briskly through the halls of Crown Castle, making his way toward the Council Chamber, the very same room where the decision for war was debated the past winter. Edward rounded the corner leading to the chamber, noting the two members of The King’s Own standing guard. They saluted smartly and opened the doors.
The Royal Army officers, some two dozen or so, noble and common alike, stood as Edward entered the chamber. Only the King and his advisors, and the nobles who were not part of the army, and thus, not under Edward’s direct authority, did not stand.
The room was fifty feet across and circular. A raised dais was against the wall to the right of the doorway. King Haralan sat in a single high-backed chair in the centre of the dais. Flanking him were his advisors in several smaller-backed chairs. The King had chosen only his seneschal and the High Priest of Stevene to accompany him to the council. A page and two additional guards stood behind the King, the guards on the extreme right and left of the dais.
Starting to the left of the doorway and running along the wall almost to the dais were a series of stone benches arranged in the style of an amphitheater, leaving a ten-foot diameter space in the middle of the room between the dais and the benches.
Edward strode into the chamber, nodding at King’s General Wainwright, General Verde, and one or two of the other assembled officers and nobles. Edward bowed to the King, and Haralan indicated with a nod and a glance that Edward should begin.
Edward turned and spoke to the assembly. “Please, take your comfort that we may begin.” The army officers sat amidst a great cacophony of armour against stone. Edward waited for them to finish seating themselves before continuing.
“Time grows short, our options grow limited, and the enemy grows restless. Thus, I shall dispense with the usual pleasantries and get straight to the meat of the matter.” As he spoke, Edward let his gaze roam over the faces of his audience. On some he saw fear, on others, resignation and despair, on most determination. On all he saw the marks of sleeplessness. In private, Edward would grudgingly admit to most of those feelings. In public, things were different. In public, a leader must convey confidence and decisiveness. And so, Edward buried his misgivings deep within, smiled slightly, and went on in an upbeat tone and manner.
“Your Royal Majesty, Your Graces, officers of the Royal Army. Within a day, two at the outside, the last resistance in the New Districts shall be crushed and the east bank of the Laraka River shall be in the hands of the enemy. Once that happens, we shall, of necessity, be forced to send the Laraka River Flotilla down river — Gateway or Port Sevlyn — and Untar and his self-styled ‘Fist of the Emperor’ shall cross to this side unopposed.”
Edward noted the general reaction of dismay in his audience. He smiled once more. “We can expect to face thirty-five to forty thousand of the enemy. Against such strength we can muster the better part of nine thousand, discounting the cavalry and whatever force Knight Captain Westbrook may bring.”
“I note a decided lack of enthusiasm on your faces for these figures, however, figures are not all. We have sufficient strength that a direct assault would prove too costly, even for one as arrogant as Untar. While he may be able to take the Merchant’s Quarter, or mayhap even the Royal Quarter, Crown Castle’s fortifications are not conducive to a quick reduction. Therefore, he must siege us. Therein lies our hope.”
He shifted his stance somewhat, casually resting his hand upon his sword-hilt. “General Verde,” he asked, addressing his question to the recently-promoted General of the Cavalry, “how long would it take you to concentrate your Hussars?”
Verde pushed her fingers through her blonde tresses, her eyes narrowed in calculation. “A day,” she answered confidently.
Edward nodded and smiled in satisfaction. “For certes, that is the best news I have had this day. Our course of action shall be thus: When Untar crosses the river, we let him do so. Further, we make no effort to oppose his encirclement of the Old Districts. As we both shall be in stalemate, and as we are much better provisioned for a long siege than is Untar, we shall wait behind our defences whilst General Verde and Knight Captain Westbrook, should she arrive after Untar crosses the river, do spread consternation along what part of Untar’s line of communication as can be reached without undue effort. Untar’s supplies shall dwindle, he shall be forced to send more and more troops off to protect his supplies, and we shall bleed his army as if it suffers from the Red Plague.”
He let his audience ponder and reflect on his remarks for a while. When the expressions of thoughtful consideration gave way to fidgeting, he asked, “Are there any that wish to pose questions?”
The Duchess of Welspeare spoke first. “I find myself mostly in agreement with your plan, Sir Edward. I do, however, have two main queries.”
Edward bowed. “Certainly, Your Grace.”
Duchess Welspeare crossed her hands in her lap and proceeded. “My first question centres on what role you envisage for the House Troops.”
Edward paused, collecting his thoughts before answering. “Since the major portion of the House Troops are mounted, my intention was for those mounted contingents to work closely with General Verde and her Hussars.” Edward noted the nods of approval from most of the dukes and duchesses. The exceptions, the dukes of Oneda and Monrodya, and the Seneschal of the Duchy of Northfield, came as no surprise. Edward also noted that Sarah Verde, General of the Cavalry, indicated with a glance and a nod that she was also aware of the potential sources of friction with which she would have to deal.
“As for those Foot contingents of the House Troops, prudence would indicate that they should work hand-in-hand with Knight Captain Westbrook and her forces.” Again nods, this time from all present.
“Does that satisfy Your Grace?” Edward inquired.
Duchess Welspeare smiled graciously. “On the first point, entirely, Sir Edward. My second query is of a more immediate matter and concerns the current deployment of forces in the capital, specifically the dividing of force between Old and New Districts and whether or not such positions are defensible.”
Edward shifted his position slightly before answering Welspeare’s question. For one known for being near-impossibly stoic, it was an indication that the immense pressures, both military and political, of prosecuting such a large and far-flung conflict were beginning to take their toll.
“The current disposition of our forces is not what one would name desirable,” Edward said in a monotone. “It was dictated more by the outcome of the ill-advised attempt to meet the enemy host on the field than by military sense. I do not believe the New Districts to be tenable. Neither can we reinforce nor evacuate — any attempt to do so would surely be observed by the Beinisonians and would bring their entire army down upon the heads of those defending the New Districts. We might possibly succeed in getting one or two thousand out before the New Districts fell or we might not get any out. And should we attempt to reinforce, we would only be putting cudgels in the mob’s hands.”
Duchess Welspeare nodded and sat back, obviously troubled by the Knight Commander’s bleak evaluation. As well, there seemed, for just an instant, an expression of satisfaction on Her Grace’s features, almost as if she had just scored a point in some sort of game.
“Are there any others with questions?” Edward asked, scanning the room.
“I might question what it is we have done that God has visited this punishment of war and invasion upon us, Sir Edward,” the Duke of Monrodya spoke, “but as to your military dispositions, regrettably, I can find no fault. All that can be done, in good conscience and military sense, seems to have been done.”
Edward nodded in appreciation. “Since it does seem that we are all agreed … General Verde, concentrate your Hussars three leagues northwest of the city and await my call.” Verde nodded, stood and saluted both Sir Edward and King Haralan, and departed with her officers.
“Your Graces, would you, as the King’s Grace gives you leave to depart, see to the assembling of your forces northwest of the city, there to await the arrival of General Verde and her Hussars?” The Dukes and Duchesses all indicated their affirmation, even those representatives of Houses opposed to the Knight Commander’s policies.
Edward turned to face Commander Jan Courymwen. “Commander, see to it that the troops are well-fed and rested. And see to it, as well, that, if it has not already been done, all remaining foodstuffs are brought inside the city.” Jan stood, saluted, and left the chamber, the Royal Army officers following.
Sir Edward turned last to his King. “Your Royal Majesty, if Your Grace requires nothing further of myself or King’s General Wainwright, he and I should take further counsel.”
“We should like to have King’s General Wainwright remain awhile. As for Your Graces,” Haralan nodded to the assembled Dukes and Duchesses, “We charge you, look to your troops and bury this animosity between you and the officers of the Royal Army lest that very animosity bury Baranur.” Some nodded vigourously, others reluctantly, and a few, defiantly. “Go then, and may Stevene smile upon us all.” The nobles stood and bowed to their King and quit the chamber.
Haralan turned to Edward and smiled. “Go, my friend. There are some few diverse matters upon which I wish to take counsel of King’s General Wainwright. I shall not keep him overly long.”
Edward bowed. “As Your Majesty desires.”
Haralan watched his Knight Commander depart and then dismissed his retinue, coming down from the dais to sit next to Wainwright. When the two were alone, Haralan turned to the King’s General of the Royal Duchy and asked, “What do you know of the political maneouverings here in Magnus?”
Wainwright smiled slightly. “Somewhat, Your Majesty. I try to keep myself out of politics as much as I am able. What is it that Your Majesty is referring to?”
Haralan sighed. “Surely you know why I gave Northfield command of the defence of the city these few days past?”
Wainwright looked his King squarely in the eyes and said, “No, I do not. To be honest, I have always considered Duke Northfield to be, ah, somewhat lacking in the skills of war. His performance against the Beinisonians proved that.”
Haralan grunted, accepting the criticism. “That was well-struck and honestly deserved. I had no choice, General Wainwright. There is a movement afoot to replace Edward.” Haralan held up a hand to forestall Wainwright’s protest. “This is a game of power, General. Northfield and his faction see an opportunity to elevate their own man to the position as Knight Commander, using the less-than-spectacular course of events thus far as their justification.”
“As well,” Haralan continued, assuming a more comfortable position, “there are other things, not related to the prosecution of the war, that are at work.”
Wainwright’s expression grew thoughtful. “Is it because the Knight Commander is a Galician, then?”
Haralan smiled slightly. “Partly, General, partly. In the main, though, it is Edward’s personal conduct with some, actually, one, of his officers, that is providing further fuel for the arguments against him. Arguments I am doing my best to ignore, but which, sooner or later, I may be forced to listen to.”
Wainwright grunted. “It is his friendship with Commander Courymwen and the talk about the two of them.”
Haralan nodded. “Yes, that is precisely the reason. I sense you are one who supports Edward, General. That is why I am telling you these things. With Marcellon incapacitated, there are few whom I can turn to with trust. Those opposed to Edward continuing as Knight Commander are close, very close, to forcing a resolution, one that goes against Edward. Not only do I not wish that from a personal standpoint — Edward is perhaps my closest friend — neither do I wish it as King.”
“Why not just leave Sir Edward as Knight Commander? You *are* the King, after all.”
Haralan laughed. “Someday, when we have time, I shall explain to you, General, that the power of a King is not as absolute as one might wish. We do not have the time, however. We must act to save Edward and we must act now. I have an idea that might buy some time. I am loathe to propose it, but I can see no other alternative.”
“This is what I intend to do ….”