Branston attempts to sort out the mess of secrecy while Visicleus deals with the Margolans
Worth of Alliance
Branston followed High Commander Visicleus from the chamber. Aclaides flanked the other side of the man, and the one-handed man walked at Branston’s right side. A column of two dozen soldiers flanked each side of the procession, hands on swords as they reached the courtyard.
The soft early-dawn sky held no clouds. Arms of smoke reached up beyond the fortress. The camp of soldiers stirred.
Visicleus halted and looked to Branston, trying to keep an eye on Aclaides as well. “Neither of you shall leave my side, for the time being.”
“What?” Aclaides spat. “We have work to do! We need more dragons.”
Visicleus fixed Aclaides in his gaze, still imposing though he was a head shorter than the Guard. “We were attacked by a wraith! All the Dragon Guard were slaughtered. Until I can work out a safe way for you two to capture dragons, you will remain under my supervision.”
A lump grew in Branston’s throat at the thought of Olivar killed by the wraith. He gripped his sword, distracting his mind. An army comes from the north, and a flying beast comes with them. Our walls are useless against that thing.
Visicleus turned to the one-handed man. “You too. You’re staying with me. I need a Warden nearby. Contact your fellows, and get them here as soon as possible.”
The one-handed man–a Warden, it seemed–frowned. “Some Wardens are fighting battles. There are other armies fighting, with Wardens of their own. They are needed there.”
Visicleus scratched a graying sideburn. “Do they have Dragon Guard.”
Visicleus turned around. “Let’s go. You three will stay close. That is all.”
The doors of the courtyard opened as the procession approached. Branston imagined other men fighting the creatures at the river. With no dragons, how did they deal with flying beasts?
At the stable within the wall, men led horses forward. Four white horses brushed and saddled. Branston took one of the horses, while Visicleus, Aclaides, and the Warden mounted.
“Might I ask what we are doing now?” Branston asked, balancing himself in the saddle.
Visicleus adjusted his green coat, fastening the top button. The high collar reached near his chin. “We are meeting with the Margolans.”
Branston nodded, yawning behind his teeth. “Do you have a plan? Others are fighting, so what will Fangog do?”
“We will fight,” Visicleus said. “When we are ready.”
“And where will we strike?”
Visicleus scowled. “Where we are needed.” He spurred his horse forward through the open gate at a walk. Branston and the other horsemen followed. The two columns of soldiers flanking them walked in long strides to keep up.
They moved down the slope of the ridge, past a path bordered with scarce trees. The path curved to lead them into the camp. Men wearing Takinthad armor ran about business, or tended campfires. The sour scent of the unwashed men burned at Branston’s nose, and the sounds of clanging and shouting filled his ears.
The camp paths led them east for a mile before reaching the river. The cool water flowed down from the north. Men held fishing poles or fetched water in buckets. Others worked at digging furrows to direct the water into the camp.
“High Commander.” Branston drew his horse up beside Visicleus as the company halted by the muddy bank. “The creatures that attacked us did so at the river, further north. They rode in boats.”
Visicleus looked to Branston, frowning. At the commander’s beck, a soldier came to his side.
Visicleus said, “Gather archers and post them along the bank to the north. Set two dozen spearmen across the bridges, a dozen swordsman at the ford, and one hundred men at Salzin’s Cross; half archers, half swordsmen.”
The soldier pressed fist to steel breastplate. “Yes, Commander.”
He broke into a run, going the way they came.
“Excellent move, Commander,” said the Warden, dipping his head.
“Look at that,” Visicleus said, pointing across the water. The far bank lay a quarter-mile away. Beneath the thick treeline, a mass of darkness moved. The sun was not yet risen enough to clear the area, but fires sprang up on the far bank. Shapes too small at this distance shifted about, springing tents and raising banners.
“The Margolans?” Branston asked, spurring his horse a few steps closer to the water.
“Yes,” Visicleus intoned. “Very clever.”
Branston twisted in his saddle to look at Visicleus. “What’s clever, Commander?”
“Fealty’s not yet been sworn, so they are still enemies; technically.” Visicleus sounded impressed. “They’ve camped on the far bank to leave a divide between us, in case we choose to attack. They already took a huge risk sending in the general when a messenger would do fine. It seems they are willing to take a risk, yet not too many.” He looked to his soldiers. “I imagine they have men stationed at the bridges, as well.”
“But why would they?” Branston asked. He looked back to the Margolans. If he listened hard enough, and blocked out the sound of the horses nickering and the fisherman, he thought he could hear the men across the bank shouting orders.
Visicleus’ voice cut through Branston’s concentration. “Men may be stationed on the bridges in case we choose to attack. If we take our boats across the river, we are a target to get shot. Therefore we might cross the bridges, which if they hold, may bode poorly for our men.”
Branston scowled at the men across the river. Madness. We shouldn’t be fighting each other. “Do you think they’ll attack?”
“No way to tell,” Visicleus muttered. “If we fight depends entirely on–“
“Pardon.” A mousy man in a ruffled gray tunic strode up, halting before the column of soldiers at the riders’ right side. His attention was on Visicleus. “I am a messenger from Lord Chesdan Benner.”
Visicleus turned his horse to face the man. The messenger wore a sword on his hip, but otherwise looked unimposing.
Visicleus lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “And what has he to say?”
Branston turned his horse to the man, whose gaze flitted between the four riders.
He spoke confidently, however. “Lord Chesdan knows you wish to inspect his troops, but does not wish to cross the river. He requests you come to him.”
Visicleus scowled. “Very well.” He lifted a hand as the Warden opened his mouth. “Tell him this: I will send one hundred men to his camp. We will cross the bridge a mile south. More, we will bring a dragon. If he or his men try anything unfriendly, his army goes up in flames. If we can meet as allies, then no harm will come.”
The messenger’s eyes bugged, and he licked his lips. He nodded hesitantly. “Very well.” The man bowed and retreated. He pushed a boat into the water and leaped in, paddling across the river.
“Well,” the Warden said, “That will probably halt any hostile thoughts.”
Visicleus smiled, staring daggers across the river. A soldier approached at his beck. “Gather one hundred men, lead them to the bridge.”
“Yes, Commander.” The man retreated.
Visicleus looked to Aclaides. “You will retrieve the dragon. Bring her here.” He looked to the Warden. “You will go with him.” To the left column of soldiers he said, “Watch him closely, got it?”
A chorus of “Yes, Commander” rang out from behind closed visors.
Aclaides nodded. “Yes, Commander.” He pressed fist to heart and reared his horse, leading it at a walk toward Fangog.
“A wraith killed all the Dragon Guard, but the dragon lives?” Branston asked.
“Yes,” Visicleus looked to the far bank. “The dragon put up a fight; the chamber was scorched. The dragon was not even injured.”
Branston nodded slowly, watching more fires spring up on the far bank. Men emerged from the trees across the water, leading horses to the bank. Lord Chesdan’s messenger still paddled across the calm river.
“High Commander, may I ask a question?” Branston looked to Visicleus, who stared at the Margolans.
“Of course,” he replied.
Branston lowered his voice and looked around. Their guards came from within Fangog, and knew of the King’s death, but the fishermen and errand-runners sat beyond the fortress, and knew nothing. “Why has the….change in power been kept secret?”
Visicleus’ eyes widened, and glanced to a fisherman. He led his horse close and told Branston “We’re not sure what the men will do if they find out. We have thousands of men here who came to follow the King. If he’s not leading them, they may leave. I want to prolong them finding out until absolutely necessary, which would be when I lead them north.”
“But now Chesdan knows,” Branston said. “If he tells people, and our soldiers find out, what will happen? They will know their leader lied to them. Worse, they may suspect you arranged the murder, and set the blame on Faldashir and Bolthos.” Branston banished the memory of Faldashir’s head falling from the headsman’s block. “Out of thousands of men, one is bound to think this. He will spread the rumor, and doubt will run through your ranks.”
Visicleus’ jaw clenched. “You may be right. But what can I do? It’s been almost a week since he died.”
“You burned the body?” Branston asked. “All three?”
Branston ran a finger over his chin, thinking. His father being a lord taught him how to manipulate people. Though Branston was scarce in his use of politics. However, now was a time to use what he knew.
“Say the King died last night,” Branston said. “The wraith’s strike was obviously planned. It struck the most powerful of us. Bolthos was a Dragon Guard; he can die as the rest did. The King is a clear power. If the wraith knows this, it would have killed him. Faldashir died defending him.”
Visicleus held Branston in a grim gaze, but his head slowly bobbed. “Good. I think I will do that. Thank you–Branston, correct?”
Branston nodded. “Yes, High Commander. Make sure the soldiers within Fangog are in on the ruse.” Branston eyed the columns of soldiers flanking he and Visicleus. Each soldier stared straight ahead formally. Most wore their visors down.
“Yes, that is important.” Visicleus looked again to the Margolans. “If my men leave me, do you think the Margolans will too?”
“I’m not sure,” Branston watched the far bank. “But things would change. Chesdan seemed ready to merge forces because you hold more men. If those men leave, he would be giving you control of his soldiers without the benefit of growing the force.”
Visicleus nodded. His thick eyebrows drew down, and he placed hand on sword-hilt as he stared at the Margolans. “Give me some time to think. Thank you for the advice.”
“Of course, High Commander,” Branston said. He gazed sidelong at the man, frowning. Is this man fit to lead? He seemed to have a poor idea of the situation, as if he were both stumbling through the days, at the same time prolonging the battle.
Of course, we’re all just trying to survive at this point. His gaze moved between Visicleus and his ranks of soldiers and the Margolans. Whether the threat is ourselves or the Second World force, there’s barely time to plan anything, let alone execute it.
The minutes passed, and Chesdan’s messenger reached the far bank. Branston sat in his saddle, ignoring the rumbling of his stomach. He glanced at the sky now and then, tracking the sun and watching for Aclaides’ dragon.
The sun rose over the treeline past the Margolans, shining in the eyes of the Takinthad men. Branston kept eyes low as the sun rose.
Fishermen drew in salmon and carried them in buckets back to camp, while other men took their place. Each man on the bank watched the Margolans, some muttering to each other. None approached Visicleus, taking his armed flanks as a sign to keep away.
Wind rasped through the trees, tugging on Branston’s shaggy hair and loose sleeves. His head wound stung and ached, but he ignored it.
Near an hour later, Aclaides drew up beside Visicleus. A column of soldiers marched behind. The Warden drew rein beside Branston.
“You have the dragon?” Visicleus asked, irritation in his voice.
“Yes, High Commander,” Aclaides held a sour face, brow drawn down and mouth twisted.
“Good.” Visicleus gripped his reins and straightened. “Where is it?”
“Still in Fangog,” Aclaides said. “On your order I’ll bring her to us.”
Visicleus nodded. “Good. Men, ready to march!” The columns of soldiers placed hands on swords and followed the riders south along the riverbank.
Branston looked toward Fangog, seeing the top of the dragon tower past trees. The trees swayed in the wind.
The water sparkled to their right as they moved, and fisherman nodded to the soldiers. The river curved gradually and trees closed in toward the bank, forcing the columns of men into thinner ranks. Branston glanced up as a bird squawked, but only a vulture wheeled above the trees.
They reached a descent and moved slowly down, getting a good view of the bridge. On their side of the bridge, the ground grew flat and open. Long grass blew in the wind, and trees ringed the field. On the opposite end, trees spread far, with a path leading through. The bridge itself was a wide wooden structure, stretching over a dozen yards of water. High rails rose twice the height of the horsemen that crowded the bridge.
On one side there sat a few dozen Takinthad soldiers, lances pointed at the clear sky. Behind them, other Takinthad men sat in saddles stretched along the bank, flanking either side of the bridge.
At the far end of the bridge, Margolan men stood with lances braced against the wood and tips angled to the horsemen. Men held shields at each lance-man’s flank.
Visicleus cursed and spurred his horse forward. The other riders followed. Branston held stiff as he bobbed up and down in the saddle as the horse charged down the hill. The soldiers spun and faced the newcomers. The ranks of soldiers behind Branston sped their pace, armors clinking as they ran down the hill.
“Make way, make way!” Visicleus shouted as they drew closer to the bridge. The Takinthad soldiers steered their horses aside, and the newcomers rode single file through their bulk.
“What is going on here!” Visicleus roared, drawing rein between both forces. The Dragon Guards and the Warden drew rein, forming a horizontal rank across the bridge.
The Margolan men crouched low, angling lances. Most wore helmets, and mail coats jingled as they shifted into a defensive posture. Men rose wide round shields.
“No,” Visicleus growled. “No! What do you people think you are doing? We are supposed to be allies, and you’re holding the bridge?” He spurred his horse a few steps forward, but no lance could touch him. For a moment only the rush of water downhill made sound. It curved under the bridge and beat against rocks.
The column of guards caught up, stepping in front the horseman.
“We have this covered, High Commander,” one soldier said behind his visor.
Branston clenched his jaw, gripping his sword.
“No,” Visicleus’ gaze shot down on the man. “There will be no fighting.” His voice grew quieter with each word, though no less angry. Finally he turned to the Margolans and spoke in a level tone. “Your Lord Chesdan has offered me an audience. He is expecting us to meet with him, and we’ve been delayed long enough. Which of you is in charge here?” His head swiveled as he looked over the Margolan soldiers.
A man came forward, straightening and placing the butt of his lance against the bridge. “I am Lieutenant Fysoll.” The man wore a helmet with steel bridging the length of his nose. He wore a blond beard and chapped lips. Green eyes gazed out from either side of the steel bridge.
“And did Lord Chesdan order you to keep us from crossing the river in our own country? Do you know what that means?” Viscleus urged another step forward.
Branston looked between the men; Visicleus on horseback and tall Fysoll on foot. The men stared at one another, but fear marked Fysoll’s eyes. Branston released his grip on his sword.
Fysoll squared his shoulders and spoke bravely. “Lord Chesdan has given you an audience?”
“Of course. Not that I need it. Your army is in my country, I have leave to do what I wish to you. Especially since you bar my way.” Visicleus raised a hand and beckoned Aclaides forward. He whispered in the man’s ear. Aclaides nodded and retreated back to the line of horsemen.
A dull beating sounded in the air; a repetitive rhythm. It grew closer, and the Margolan men cried out and fell back several steps. Branston looked up as a gold shape streaked past, landing on the far bank. The gold dragon stood tall and watched the Margolans, who turned and gaped at the beast. Branston reined in his skittering horse.
“Lord Chesdan understands his position,” Visicleus announced. “He knows the power of this kingdom. He knows he and you are at the mercy of Takinthad. And we have dragons. I’ve told Chesdan I will be arriving, with a dragon, and with soldiers. Yet you bar my way. Move aside, before you force my hand.”
Lieutenant Fysoll turned slowly to face Visicleus, steel-backed gloved hand squeezing the lance. “Make way, men.” The Margolan soldiers pressed against one side of the bridge, leaving the side nearest the dragon empty.
Visicleus rode to Fysoll’s side. “Bring your men, Lieutenant. We need an escort.”
Fysoll grimaced up at Visicleus, glancing at the dragon. “Will do.”
The dragon took to the air, and Branston rode forward, a force of Margolans in front, and columns of Takinthad soldiers behind. He desperately wished the meeting with Chesdan would not turn to violence.
END OF CHAPTER THIRTY