The camp was settling in at last for the night, they’d pushed on late into the night to get away from the camp they’d come across. They kept the scouts and sentries posted, Dunstan doubted that the camp would have been able to keep track of them. They could afford to rise later in the morning before pushing on again he thought.
Bryce sat by in the darkness of the trees, alert for anyone approaching them. It had been some minutes since he had seen Emerson and Colby make their way into the camp. The others had eaten and Palstan was busy patrolling the southern side of the camp and he’d seen to it that, once a preliminary scouting of the perimeter, that the pair could bed down for a few hours.
Bryce frowned. There had been no sign of Carter or Garrik. He kept still, his eyes always scanning and looking, there was a sentry post nearby, without turning he called to them.
There was the rustle of leaves underfoot and the man’s breathing was audible in the stillness of the night.
“Sir!” The sentry’s voice was unnaturally loud against the forbidding silence. The man was saluting and Bryce turned to him. Using the butt of his crossbow to take some of the weight, he stood, shaking out the aches of sitting cross-legged for the past hour.
“I want you to go to Dunstan and ask him for three men to collect their kits and report to me, I won’t be comfortable here until I know that we’re not being watched and that everyone is present and accounted for.” He spoke barely above a whisper, though the man had easily heard his words, carried on the light breeze in the air. He was getting worried that they might have lost them, it wasn’t like his friends to go this long without checking in.
Bryce thought it would have been futile to tell the man they were missing someone. Bryce’s tone should have been enough to suggest that. Besides, Bryce want word to get out to the rest of the group that two of his party hadn’t made it. Hopefully the man would attribute it to how the scouts made their business their own. They only answered to the man in charge and in this case, that was Dunstan.
It was some minutes when the man returned, panting slightly. Intentionally, Bryce had positioned himself and the sentry post a couple hundred meters away from the rest of the campsite. It would have been an effort for the man, after everything they’d been through that evening, to run back and rouse the members of the camp.
Bryce was waiting for them as they arrived. He had remained in the open, however he would only be visible from those looking out from the camp. Bryce thanked the sentry and he returned to his post while Bryce studied the men.
“We’re missing two scouts and three men-at-arms.” He said simply.
He stood close to them so that he didn’t have to shout. “Follow the path back the way we came until you’re in sight of the enemy camp. Rather than following trail up the hill to where we had been stationed, I want you to stay along the tree line at the bottom of the slope, look for any horses that have these attached to the saddle or in a saddlebag.”
Bryce held up one of his cartridges. “These are arrow canisters or cartridges, we use them to load our crossbows, only we use them and all of us would have had spares in our saddlebags. If you happen to find them, one of you stay with the horses, while the other two scout the area, they could have been stopped as they made their getaway. Give yourselves another fifteen minutes, if you can’t find them, return with the horse and we’ll wait until morning to find them. If you don’t find any horses after an hour, come back here and hopefully they’ll have turned up. Understand?”
In turn, each of them bobbed his head in understanding.
“Then I won’t –“
There was some sort of commotion from the outlying checkpoint to the south where Palstan should be on watch. There could be only two reasons for the noise. Bringing the men with him, Bryce ran back through the camp, slowing momentarily to hitch his back quiver into a better position. Several others arrived as he did. Palstan was there, helping someone out of the saddle of their horse. The newcomer stood slowly, favouring their left side while another man held the reins. Bryce breathed a sigh of relief as he recognised the familiar uniform the man wore, the man looked up at him and smiled. It was Carter.
Quickly, Bryce surged forward to help his friend. Palstan handed him to him and went to see to his horse. Carter was just about all in, Bryce could see. “I’m the last one,” he said breathlessly, “and I have plenty to discuss with you and Dunstan as soon as possible.” Carter said.
Bryce stopped suddenly, he was surprised by the man’s determined state. “Just take it easy for a moment, there’s plenty of time to take care of that.” Bryce told him. Carter was agitated, he pulse was racing and he was in a cold sweat. The man needed to calm down.
Carter brushed aside the polite response, pulling himself back to his feet trying to push past him, he staggered for a moment. Alarmed, Bryce held him steady by the arms to keep him up, he made use of a nearby tree to hold him upright.
Carter took several deep breaths speaking in between each one, “An unexpected enemy. They weren’t from Azarowa or Normlieth.” he said. “That’s why I have to speak with Dunstan. We need to send word back to Aylesbury on the situation. They can send reinforcements to help.” He insisted.
Acknowledging the point, Bryce took more of Carter’s weight, easing him along, then noticed the injury in his side, “Who got you?” he asked. As if registering the wound for the first time, Carter looked down at the wound and shrugged, “I got away on my horse and was on the road, but you didn’t exactly get away easily. I reached the bottom of the hill and my horse. I didn’t waste any time hanging around, unfortunately a few of them had tracked your progress along one of the trails. There were only a few of them and I knew we couldn’t afford to have them find us. I killed the two archers there and the officer. He didn’t go down easily,” Carter winced as he tried to laugh as he remembered the fight. “He hit me with a glancing blow as I thrust my knife into him, there’s little blood, that didn’t stop it from hurting. I double-backed to see if there were any others, thankfully it was only the three of them. I came on further to regroup with you lot” he explained. Bryce inspected the wound a little more, deemed it as being fairly superficial, and decided to move on.
“I nearly missed you though, those trees camouflage the camp pretty well, it was nearly too much for me to turn back. I can’t rest though, I need to speak to Dunstan.”
Bryce shook his head. “Dunstan’s handing out his men’s details at the minute, I’m afraid. We needed to kep moving until the moon had set. Otherwise they might have caught up to us by mid-morning. That’s why we weren’t at the rendezvous point.” He said. Exhausted by his frantic escape, Bryce made Carter sit down, he had to rest while Dunstan was busy.
“What about smoke? Wouldn’t our fires be visible in the sky? People nearby could smell it.” He said, his breath coming in quick gasps.
Bryce gestured for Carter to take it easy. “Don’t worry about that. Dunstan ordered a cold camp. No one has even tried lighting a fire.”
“The screen is in place and will be rotated in another couple of hours. By morning, the only evidence that we’ve been here will be the horse dung.” Carter laughed at the joke.
Bryce pulled Carter back to his feet, “Come on, I think we can meet with Dunstan.”
Dunstan, as expected, was in his tent, dismissing the last of his men. As the company commander of the mission, his tent was the focal point of the campsite, with the possible exception for the cooking fires. Tonight, though, there were no fires.
All meetings were conducted within his tent, which demanded he had the largest of tents to cater them. To one side of the room, he had cordoned off a smaller room that would give him some privacy when he needed it when he needed to sleep.
The tent’s location, however, was one most would find peculiar. As commander, many in Dunstan’s place would have their tent in the heart of the campsite, where it would likely be closest to the cooking fires. It would mean they could get food the moment it was ready. Furthermore, it provided them with protection as any intruders would have to penetrate through the outer regions of the campsite and get through the screen of sentries just for the chance at them.
Dunstan was under no illusions of such ideas. Since a young age, he had opted to be positioned in a random spot in the camp. He was neither on the outside, nor was he in the middle. The mess tent was exceptionally larger to compensate, so that instead of finding a sleeping commander, the enemy would find a room full of armed and alert men. In theory, it was an effective decoy. Dunstan’s only stipulation for such a move, was that the hot food was brought in to him the moment it was ready. All in all, it was a good trade-off for him.
Dunstan was busy working on their projections and progress on their mission as Bryce and Carter entered his tent. A map was sprawled out on a table with carved wooden figures placed to represent themselves and establishments.
Dunstan leaned over the top, using a measuring tool to predict how far they’d be travelling the following day. He scratched his head thoughtfully and then looked up to see the scouts. Both men came to attention at once, Bryce standing a little ahead of his friend. “Sergeant Carter of the scouts reporting, my lord” he announced. Dunstan pouted slightly, a little put out by the disruption to his work. He waved them through to his desk, gesturing them to sit.
“I thought the last of your men had already come in” he stated.
Bryce smiled weakly at the man, sensing their presence was interrupting his work. “The Sergeant failed to report in earlier my lord, he had run into a little trouble with a small party of men looking to follow our tracks here. Don’t worry. Carter took care of it.” Bryce informed the commander. Dunstan’s brows had risen in surprise, for a moment he thought they were at risk. He was glad the scout had dealt with the issue it. Dunstan poured each of the men some ale from a tankard from his table. The man took a deep drink of the stuff before refilling.
“There are a couple of things that I need to tell you.” Carter began, “First of all, I need to report the death of one of our scouts” Bryce looked across at him in shock, “Garrik was killed last night in our attempts to escape.” Carter confirmed. Carter could see the pain in his friend’s eyes, news like this was always hard for a leader, and no one would feel it any more than Bryce. His worst fears had come true, another man dying for the cause.
Dunstan asked the question he and Bryce were thinking “What happened?” It wasn’t a subject Carter wanted to relive, but he had to, out of respect for their comrade. “We were in the process of covering our tracks and retreating back into the trees. It was shortly after I saw your signal,” he said indicating Bryce, “I took that as our cue to get out of there too.” He told them.
“I relayed the order to the others, and we were making our retreat, Emerson and Colby were out quickly while Garrik and I stayed. The fires had died down and it was becoming easier for them to flank us. If we didn’t stay for that little bit longer, we’re not sure how many might have tracked us.” Carter hesitated, not sure whether to voice the next part. Dunstan motioned for him to continue. They needed to hear it.
“A man approached from our flank, Garrik’s attention was to our fronts and I was blindsided by the trees, he didn’t have a chance, It was a killing shot.”
Bryce and Dunstan sat, listening to every word he said, realizing now that it had been a simple mistake, there was no one to blame. The bonfires were to help deter the enemy for a short time, they burned fiercely and quickly. They weren’t meant to be a permanent thing. “By the time I reached him, I saw the wound, I did everything I could think of to staunch the blood flow but it was too severe. I was force to leave him there, I barely got away myself.”
Abruptly, Dunstan stood and began pacing around the room. “I’m sorry for your loss. My condolences to you and the rest of your unit Bryce, though, I’m afraid that we can’t properly mourn the death nor have a proper burial for him.” he said to them. Dunstan wished he could find the right words to help ease the pain they felt, as any would feel when they lost a friend.
Bryce had his head in his hands, blaming himself for what had happened, “Garrik was always a little reckless,” he told them, “but he had a good heart, and only cared for the people around him.” Bryce moved to the tent flaps, Dunstan’s next words stopped him.
“You said there was more you wanted to discuss” Dunstan pointed out. Carter was still sitting in the chair, he was no longer as comfortable as he had been when he arrived, if what he thought was true, the country and their mission could come under great threat.
“Yes, sir.” he confirmed and waited for Bryce to come back towards the center of the tent before continuing. “I have a feeling I know who is behind all of these rumours, and who followed us.” He declared. Dunstan nodded, waiting for him to elaborate on his thoughts.
“When I was making my getaway, there were men tracking me, one in particular was better than the others, I stayed out of sight as much as I could, but I knew I had to do something, I took my chance and took their leading man out, I was checking his pulse when I noticed this…” Carter reached into his cloak and pulled out the insignia he’d taken from the man and passed it to Dunstan.
The man inspected the armour, his eyebrows rose in astonishment as he recognized it. “This is the coat of arms of Caledonia” he announced in shock. Carter nodded at Dunstan, “That’s what I thinking. I was hoping I was wrong.” He admitted. Bryce took the emblem from the commander’s startled hands. “Caledonia” he wondered. “What could they want in Azarowa?” he pondered.
Dunstan hadn’t moved, as if in a daze as he thought over what it all meant. “Controversy” He replied finally. “Controversy?” Bryce repeated, not understanding his meaning. Dunstan stood slowly, trudged his way towards the map on the table, taking a utensil and placing it on the tyrant nation of Caledonia, “All of the talks. The renegotiating of the treaty between Azarowa and Normlieth, all of it is to keep Caledonia in check, and now it could be that Caledonia is taking advantage of the fact that several of our high ranking diplomats will be meeting at the capital for it.” He suggested.
“How would word reach Caledonia for where and when the negotiations are going to take place?” Bryce interjected. Dustan dismissed the question quickly, “Things always have a way of getting out, there could be informants or traitors within our sectors. Anything is possible.” He replied. “What this does mean is that escorting the lady Gleda to Castle Azarowa is now our top priority, and we need to ensure that all traces of our whereabouts are unknown until the treaty has been signed. I’ll need to call in the men to the north we have, we’re going to need every man we can if we’re to keep everything that we hold onto from falling into the hands of Caledonia.”