Sam sat by the opening of his tent, meticulously sharpening the edge of his sword, polishing the blade until it gleamed in the light. It was well past midnight and the cool breeze kept many out of their tents, many had elected to sleep in the open. Apart from the periodic change of sentries, there was little life in the camp as a majority of people had bedded down for the night. Only those by their bedrolls working on menial tasks or in the messes chatting quietly remained in the open, it was cold and quiet. Sam had drifted back to the tent he shared with Maddox. Initially, the baron had gone to sleep in the tent, then feeling the slight breeze and seeing the clear skies above, he unrolled his bedding like other had and was quietly sleeping near the entrance. Sam had tried to sleep, it was that tension of the night that kept him from relaxing. He felt like at any moment a hail of arrows would fall out of the sky, causing their camp to erupt in panic. He continuously cast his gaze around, it was comforting to see that those still awake appeared to be calm.
Sam cycled through his kit. He’d noticed earlier that on the handle of his knife some of the leather that was starting to fray. He’d worked at removing the frayed edges and was busy removing the segments, they’d need replacing, he thought. He kept the knife in the scabbard and held it firmly between his legs so he could work on it. He didn’t want to entertain the thought of him work with the unshielded blade against his flesh. He retrieved a small bottle of glue he had and used the dropper to place the small, pinpoint spots of glue that would adhere the leather to the handle. He dabbed at the glue with his fingers to spread it where he’d used too much so that it would help bind it together. He wiped his sticky fingers on the leg of his breeches and grinned, his mother would be most displeased if she saw him doing it. He wrapped the handle tightly with a small piece of linen and tied it off with some string and set the knife aside so the glue could harden by morning.
He suppressed a yawn and when he turned to grab his cloak, he saw some of their company hurrying towards their south side. Much like Bryce had done, he’d put two and two together, realizing that no one should be coming in this late. He thought everyone had been accounted for.
Regardless there were two men towards the executive tent and Dunstan’s private quarters. One of them he knew was Bryce, the lieutenant of the scout unit that was accompanying Dunstan, the other man looked familiar, but he couldn’t be sure. He too carried a satchel bag at his side and a small quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder, though he saw no sign of the crossbow that was the usual equipment of a scout.
“What’s going on here?” he muttered quietly. He was careful though to keep his voice down, he wasn’t sure who might be around to hear him. As a first year student, he was aware that bringing attention to himself was not a particularly smart thing to do. In the days he’d spent in the company of the other soldiers, he’d noticed they looked down upon him. Many of the men in the company had spent years in the armies of the kingdom, waiting for their chance to prove themselves for an opportunity like this. They saw it as a great honour that you worked towards.
When someone as fresh faced as Sam came along and was chosen for a mission, they resented them, thinking the youth hadn’t earned the respect that was demanded in the harsh world. Some of the more experienced men were past such childish thoughts, they had seen dozens of men come through the ranks, so they were used to younger, fitter and less experienced men joining them. As a result, Sam had been doing his best to stay in the presence of the veterans, as he found they were always willing to pass on some form of knowledge to guide him. Maddox was such a person, always willing to offer him advice or being around to answer any questions that Sam might have. And there were plenty of those.
It was some minutes before the two men reappeared, the youth saw that they, Bryce in particular, were visibly distraught, while the other man remained detached from him and looked rather worse for wear. He waited a few moments before rising and walking past the still forms of sleeping men towards Dunstan’s tent. Dunstan was impressed by Sam’s solution, and had told him he would make time to talk more to him.
The youth had checked his sword again, felt the leather of his knife for any perforations, and sheathed the weapons. He left the sword behind in his tent, there was no reason for him to carry it, he fastened his knife scabbard to his belt and swiftly moved towards the tent. He stopped just short of the tent, gathered himself and knocked quietly on the frame. He announced himself at the opening and waited for Dunstan to respond.
“Come in” he heard him call.
The tent was large, larger than Sam had expected, he looked around the room, wondering where all of the equipment and storage lockers and chests had come from. He glanced back to see Dunstan standing behind his desk with his chair shoved out behind him.
“Sir...” Sam began, “Just a moment, Sam.” Dunstan interjected. Dunstan was using a measuring tool, one segment was placed above a figure labeled “tent” with the other drawn out to represent smaller landmarks. Dunstan paused briefly, muttered under his breath and then scribbled a rough line on the map. Sam surmised that it would be the path they’d be following the following day.
Dunstan dropped the piece of charcoal and stood up straight, he rubbed his eyes, trying to get rid of the drowsiness that was starting to creep in.
“Is someone troubling you?” Dunstan asked. He knew some of the men had been a little prickly towards him.
“No, sir. Not really. I was wondering why scouts had come in to see you? I thought everyone had reported in?” he inquired. Dunstan smiled warmly at the boy and led him by the shoulder towards his desk. He apologized to the boy about the mess and quickly tidied up some of his papers into a pile.
Dunstan had the boy get himself comfortable, while he headed for the exit to check outside the tent. He wanted to confirm that no one was nearby to eavesdrop on the conversation he was about to have. He closed the flap of the tent and walked back to his seat, sighing as he felt the support of the soft pillows comforting his sore back muscles.
“While everything went to plan as far as we were concerned,” he started, knowing that Sam understood “we” as being their escape, “the scouts that we had on their western flank were forced to retreat sooner than we had hoped.” he paused momentarily to stand and check the exit again, there was no one within earshot, though there were the sentries on duty, they wouldn’t be able to hear them.
Keeping his back to Sam, he continued, “Those fires that we had in place were a good idea,” Sam flushed in embarrassment, he wasn’t used to praise from commanders, “but they didn’t last long enough. One of them burned out and that meant the enemy could flank our scouts. Two of them got away easily and arrived as planned, another arrived a short time ago, he would have been one of the scouts you saw in here before.”
“What about the fourth man?”
Dunstan looked at him dejectedly. It was a fact that he’d have to face, “He was killed.” he said flatly, “When the fire burned out, two bowmen managed to get to the top of the hill they were on, he was killed trying to save the third man.”
They sat in silence for a while. Neither wanting to add anything to what had been said. Dunstan decided to change the subject.
“You know of the reasons behind this mission?” he asked, knowing full well that Sam did. The morning before they left he had found Sam in the stables. As he was being assigned his horse, he had taken Sam aside to go through the details of the mission with him.
“Preparations are being made for the upcoming negotiations between Normlieth and Azarowa in the capital of Azarowa. At this time, representatives from Aylesbury, Azarowa, Normlieth and at least one other country, are required to attend this. Depending on the countries attending the assembly, they will make their way towards the Azarowan capital in the province of Deepdene Gorge in the next week or two.”
Sam nodded, remembering Dunstan going through this with him previously.
“What I haven’t told you is the center of the gorge is a rise. It’s several hundred meters wide and long, the castle itself is atop this pinnacle, making for an impressive defensive position. They have four drawbridges, one that goes down into the ravine, one that acts as a minor footbridge for travelers, the King’s men use it as their way of exiting the castle, it’s a quick and easy way in and out. Logically, this footbridge is manned day and night by a small retinue of armed soldiers.”
“The other two are on opposing sides of the castle and are the major bridges, any large traffic access the castle through them. They open at dawn, and close shortly after dusk. For us, we are to escort the lady Gleda, one of our own high ranking diplomats, to oversee the signing of the treaty in the capital. There will be many others that have a similar task. Few will arrive at the same time, that would only attract the attention of our enemies. Some are even brought in a month or two in advance. It means more men required for protection, but it’s more likely to succeed. The negotiations can last for several days, and the premises are locked down during, no one leaves and no one enters. If you aren’t there before discussions commence, you aren’t allowed in. Once an agreement is made, the new treaty is written and signed by each member in attendance. Everything goes back to how it was.” He said.
Once again, he knew that the boy had some knowledge of this, but thought it best to remind him, now he pushed on to the aspects that the boy was not familiar with.
“As you know, there are brigands, bandits and the like along the roads, hoping to get something out of it all, sometimes ransom money other times simply to gain information. It’s common for our adversaries to slip in to the country, chief among them is a country called Caledonia.” He told the boy.
Dunstan, felt the sudden need for a drink. He stood to open a new flask of brandy and grabbed two cups. He mentally kicked himself as he remembered the youth’s age and instead pushed forward the beaker of cold water on his desk to Sam and poured some of the liquor into his own glass.
“The treaty is based on the caretaker duties of Caledonia. The nation used to be the border between Normlieth and Azarowa, long ago the two nations warred with one another, a new king was elected in Azarowa and he wanted to make amends with Normlieth, so he sent men to negotiate a peace agreement. What they didn’t know was there was a faction of men that were working in the supreme courts of each nation, working behind the scenes to continue the wars, waiting until the two countries were bled dry so they could strike. It almost worked, they were busy implementing the final stages of their plans when their plans were discovered. One of their lower ranked soldiers was found dead, his clothing marked with a distinct emblem. Normlieth and Azarowa worked together to uncover the mystery and banish the traitors to a small province placed between the two, the decision paved the way as a crucial part of the treaty coming in. Unfortunately, they didn’t take the time to abolish the traitors. Some years later they were able to reemerge.” Dunstan could see that the boy was hanging on his every word. Sam had read the text books, he knew the history briefly, but he had never heard the details.
“About a hundred years ago there was the first uprising in Caledonia, at that stage it was just a simple border town, it was common knowledge of what lurked there, but Normlieth and Azarowa neglected to make any further investigations, they tended to walk tip-toe around each other. Neither wanted to do anything that would upset the other. Meanwhile, Caledonia was never aligned with either country and it was seen as being neutral ground, trading was beneficial for both nations. A river runs out to the west coast, it also happens to run easterly to the now smuggling town of Blackden within Aylesbury, this made it a critical point for us too. However, neither were willing to step in to take control. Caledonia took Blackden in a day, we managed to bottleneck them in the south-east but they were able to spread their poison throughout the other two countries. They used the same inlet that ran out to the sea about a hundred kilometers to hit them on a large scope. Now they were the ones in control of the trade, and were able to withhold a lot of the supplies. Pirates were recruited and swept through the eastern coast to cut off trading lines, it was devastating for everyone. They claimed a sizeable portion of both nations before they were finally repelled, We can keep them in check, though the negotiations offer them the opportunity to strike again. There are remnants of the bad blood between Normlieth and Azarowa, each day it’s passing, however the treaty states that if the treaty is dismissed, so does their trust of each other. Ridiculous when you think that such an important alliance hinges on the interference of another country. We’re lucky we aren’t a part of either nation.” He paused as he took a drink of his brandy and sat down, letting out a sigh of long awaited comfort.
“The one thing we have going for us is Caledonia’s greed. Their leaders and their associates have been overcome by their sense of greed and power and they haven’t had a single leader in place for long enough to build the appropriate authority for their people to follow. In all this time, Caledonia has been in a choke hold.” He told the boy, taking another sip of the brandy.
Sam sat, hands rubbing together. His mind was boggling at the amount of information Dunstan had just thrown at him. What he took in made sense to him, but he didn’t have the foggiest idea as to why this was relevant to explaining why there were two scouts in meeting with him after a time all discussions had ended.
“So how is that all important?”
Dunstan took a deep breath, his mouth felt dry after talking so much. “It is important my boy, because one of our scouts that you saw earlier here, came across the same distinct emblem that was found on that dead soldier all those years ago”. At last Dunstan was fitting all of the pieces together as he was explaining it all to the boy. “They’re here to gain intelligence, their plan is to occupy pockets of the country, as I mentioned before, Deepdene Gorge is a well-fortified place, but at the same time, it’s also a death trap. If they manage to insert enough men into the country, they’ll be able to correlate an attack by penetrating into the country’s stronghold and bringing it down from the inside. Those same bridges that you need access to, to get in, are the same bridges you need access to if you are to get out. That’s something we might be facing when we reach the capital tomorrow.”