Second Battle of Jent
Bran pounded his arms with gloved hands and stomped his feet, more to stay awake than to fight off the cold. The storm and the winds had finally lifted just before daybreak, and he squinted against a bright winter sky as he surveyed the long narrow valley below him. The white snow was patched by hundreds of gray tents, and the blue sky was lined by the black wisps of smoke from an equal number of small fires. Most of the wagons and carts had been unloaded, and they were finally idle, parked beside hastily repaired storage barns and corrals where the exhausted dray horses huddled.
None of the men looked or felt any better than the horses, but after a week of fighting the early snow, three other valleys like this one were now ready to house the armies that were converging on the Pass. The road leading into the mountains from the plains below the Pass had been cleared of drifts and ice, and barring another strong winter storm, they would not have any difficulty keeping it clear throughout the winter.
Bran failed to suppress a deep yawn, and shaking his head, he turned back to the command tents on the rise overlooking this valley. Oltcynn sat slumped in a camp chair, his bleary eyes staring at the flames that fought with the damp wood, and he didn’t cough or blink as wafts of sooty smoke drifted past him on the light breeze. Bran had dismissed him hours ago, but the boy had insisted on being present when Altan was to arrive around midday. Bran had let him stay, hoping a warm breakfast would drive some of the weariness from their bones lest they both succumb to exhaustion.
He stayed standing beside the fire, shaking off a single servant that beckoned him to sit, knowing that if he did, he would be unlikely to rise again. Wearily, the man continued prepping their meal, and if Bran hadn’t been so tired, he’d have dismissed him and taken care of the meal himself. He jerked his head up, blinking dumbly after realizing that he’d nodded off where he stood.
“My Lord,” the man repeated, holding a steaming mug.
Bran rubbed his face and grunted a thank you as he took the strong tea. The aroma of crackling bacon stirred his appetite, although the long pull of the hot liquid had long ago ceased to revive him. He drank anyway, letting the hot brew warm him. A horse snorted as it struggled up the last few paces to the ridge, and he turned just as the Quartermaster dismounted. The horse stood where he left it, and there was no fear that it would wander off since it was as exhausted as the man it had just carried up the slope. Besides, Bran had sent all the stable hands to bed a few hours ago.
“The last wagons have been parked and unloaded,” he reported, confirming what Bran had witnessed from the top of the ridge throughout the morning. “Triumon Ealder’s entire host is now safely in the Pass, having taken up positions in the first two camps.”
Bran nodded as the Quartermaster slumped into a chair next to Oltcynn. The snow had limited their space, and the camps would soon grow crowded with his sister approaching from the plains and Segan approaching from their rear.
“Lord Altan is about a half hour behind me,” the Quartermaster added, taking an offered mug of tea.
Bran just nodded again.
Their hot breakfast was served, and they ate, mechanically, in silence. Additional servants emerged from prepping the tents, and when they began to pile more wood upon the fire and clear away the breakfast, Bran finally dismissed them all, just as he had done to the guard a few hours earlier. None of these men had slept properly in days, and like the guard, they left, being too tired to insist that they stay attentive to their duties.
The neighing of horses below announced Altan’s arrival, and Bran turned back to the ridge as Altan motioned for the half dozen guards in his entourage to continue into the camp. Altan climbed the steep path to the command tents and dismounted, leaving his horse next to the Quartermaster’s.
He strode up to the fire as the Quartermaster and Oltcynn pulled themselves out of the camp chairs. Altan’s clean clothing matched his well rested appearance, both in stark contrast to the dirty bedraggled group in front of him. All three knew they had done their jobs well if the rest of the soldiers were as fresh as Altan.
“Get some sleep, boy,” Altan barked, shaking his head. “You too,” he said to the Quartermaster. “There are a hundred men and servants following me into this valley. They will look after this camp until nightfall.”
Both were too tired to argue their dismissal, and the Quartermaster made a tired bow before turning to his tent. Oltcynn hesitated for a moment.
“Take some well deserved rest,” Bran said. “I’ll have you woken around midday.”
Oltcynn made a slight bow and shuffled away, following the Quartermaster.
“You seem to have tempered his pride,” Altan said, moving to stand nearer the warmth of the fire.
“Hard work will do that,” Bran said.
“His mother chafes at this assignment,” Altan said, ignoring the implied insult. “She insists that he return to the battle group.”
“As you wish,” Bran said. “Your nephew has done your House credit, however. Northmon is honored to have had his assistance. He’s earned the respect of these men with his quick thinking and eagerness to lend a hand. The Quartermaster has taught him more than being a raw recruit on the battlefield ever will. Fighting the Dasyu is no place for a boy.”
“His mother thinks otherwise,” Altan said, leaving little doubt that he felt the same way.
Even if he had not been too tired to exert the effort, Bran knew this was an argument he could not win. It was clear that Altan and his mother viewed this assignment beneath the boy’s station, and it had been done only as a reprimand for his earlier insubordination. The lesson of earning respect through hard work and leading via example had not been the point, regardless of how well Oltcynn had esteemed himself. Still, Bran found himself speaking his mind.
“He should stay with the Quartermaster,” he said. “Your nephew has a quick mind and a head for organization. He is also an extremely able horseman. His place is here.”
“He will carry a sword at his hip and longbow across his back, and stand beside his mother,” Altan said sharply, ending the discussion as Bran had expected.
“What’s the news from Torbod?” Bran asked, changing the subject.
“Worse,” Altan said. “The countryside is in flames and the number of Dasyu assaulting Torbod is in the tens of thousands. The beaches are black with their longships.”
Bran was too tired to even frown at that report. This was the full scale Dasyu invasion that they had feared, and although Torbod would not be in any danger of falling, the surrounding area would be razed to the ground.
“Any word from my sister?” he asked.
Altan shook his head.
“We’ve received nothing from Segan’s advance detachment at this end of the Pass either,” Bran said. “Westermon is still idle, I presume.”
“Westermon will hold their coast and cities,” Altan said. “Nothing more. There are rumors that Haelanhon is reluctantly mustering. Cettan is said to be marching straight for Torbod.”
This news did surprise Bran, both its announcement and boldness. He had expected Haelanhon to send limited forces that would march with Segan, and he had assumed Cettan was already in Torbod with Fyrian and their infant son, Baran. The reserved and cautious Haelanhon Ealder would not easily yield up his armies to his youngest son, regardless of Cettan’s surprising marriage to Fyrian Bruchmon that had made him sire to the heirs of that House.
“If this news is true, then it may be enough to drive the Dasyu from the walls of Torbod and do what Westermon would not,” Bran said.
“Sending them more quickly here,” Altan said. “Any relief for Torbod must be properly timed or we will be overrun here. We cannot allow the Dasyu into these mountains; Triumon cannot allow that.”
“Then it is fortunate that the Dasyu must first subdue Bruchmon to keep those hosts from pursuing them from behind when they make their inevitable march here,” Bran said.
He knew the importance of protecting what lay hidden in these mountains, even if Triumon refused to speak of it. He was Bran Northmon, leader of that House, and as such, Fayersae made sure he knew what was required of a great House, even though many years lay before him before he attained the stature and title of Ealder.
For information on Heart of Hauden, Book One of the Harmony of the Othar Saga, please visit www.heartofhauden.com.