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Chapter Twelve

All that afternoon they practiced in the courtyard.  The next day Herfinnr had them practicing all day.  “We’ve got another sparring partner this morning,” he said.  “The Duke thought it would be best if he got some practice in as well since his sword technique could use some improvement.”  Amundr and Saegrimr looked up and saw that Aoalbert was walking sullenly behind Herfinnr. 

“That’s not all that could use improvement,” Amundr muttered angrily.

“I think that I’ll start off working with Saegrimr again and Amundr can work with Aoalbert.”  This elicited a groan from Saegrimr, but Amundr had a feral grin across his face as he rose to spar with Aoalbert.

Herfinnr handed each of them a wooden practice sword and made sure their armor and shields were positioned correctly.  “Let’s begin.”

Amundr and Aoalbert circled each other while Herfinnr launched straight into another ferocious and direct assault on Saegrimr.  Amundr was briefly distracted as his friend was knocked to the ground again and Aoalbert lunged quickly, striking him across his wrist and forcing him to drop his sword.

“Peasant,” Aoalbert hissed as Amundr stooped to pick up his weapon.  “You are adequate with a spear, but you’ll never make a decent swordsman.  You’re just not of the right blood.”

Something inside Amundr snapped.  He waded in against Aoalbert, heedless of the blows glancing off his shield.  He lashed out as hard as he could with his sword, striking the baron’s son across the ribs once, twice, thrice.  Aoalbert went down in a heap.  Amundr was screaming incoherently about Aoalbert’s cowardice and incompetence and as he went to strike the downed man he was seized firmly from behind by Herfinnr.  “Save it for the vergrinn.  We’ll be seeing them soon enough.  I think Aoalbert has learned enough for now.”  Aoalbert was dismissed to limp back into the keep, clutching his side tightly with his arm.

***

The following morning they moved their practices inside because of a constant drizzle.  Late that afternoon, Herfinnr announced that their practice was complete.  “For now, anyway,” he had said.  “We need to ensure that each of you have all of your gear and provisions prepared for the trip.

Thousands of men had come to the citadel from the surrounding area.  Amundr and Saegrimr had been moved out of the barracks and into a small room in the keep “as befitted their station.”  They missed the boys from their town and they missed Stigr and Fastbjorn, who treated all the “lads” like their own sons.  They went with Herfinnr to check on the last preparations of their horses and tack before heading with him to the great hall.

“It’s a tradition that we have a feast before heading out,” Herfinnr explained.  “One great feast of rich meats and fresh baked goods to remind us of the homes and hearths we are setting out to protect.  It also might be the last fresh food you eat for a while, so eat up.”  Amundr felt bad for his friends back in the barracks who usually ate much poorer fare until Herfinnr assured him “All the fighting men who are setting out partake in the feast.  The whole courtyard will be full of men celebrating.  They won’t be up late – we’re leaving at dawn – but they’ll eat well.”

The hall was filled with nobles.  As the newest knights, Amundr and Saegrimr expected that they would be at the tables farthest from the dais, but they were actually seated at the table nearest the dais.  “You are of the Order of the Rock – the Duke’s own men,” Herfinnr explained.  “In the Duke’s citadel, that outranks the knights of any other house save the king, and none of his men are here.”

Indeed, Amundr noticed as he looked around the room that several of the other knights were looking at them and commenting on the sigils of rank they bore.  As he looked around he realized that he did not see Aoalbert anywhere.  When he brought this to Herfinnr’s attention, Herfinnr scowled.  “Of course not.  This feast is for the men going out to battle, remember?  The Duke has forbidden Aoalbert from riding with the company.”  Herfinnr did not approve of Aoalbert’s cowardice, but he was in the service of Aoalbert’s father.  The baron would not be pleased with this turn of events.

After everyone had eaten their fill, the Duke stood up at the high table.  “My faithful and courageous men,” he began.  “Tonight we celebrate life and home and hearth.  Tonight we eat at peace and in comfort.  Tomorrow we depart for battle.”  He paused before continuing.  “We know not exactly how many vergrinn are menacing Eyjolf.  Reports said at least two thousands, but more than five hundreds have already been slain.  I had hoped to send three thousands to Eyjolf, but our muster has not been as quick as I had hoped.  Tomorrow we will send two thousands of our foot men north with three hundred cavalry and two hundred mounted knights.  We will end this invasion and we will end it quickly.”  He glanced at Amundr and Amundr feared the Duke would reveal what he knew of the Wolf Spears.  “Get a good night’s sleep and be ready to depart ere sunup.”

***

An hour before sunrise Herfinnr came and roused Amundr and Saegrimr.  “Cold biscuits and jerky this morning, boys.  We need to get our horses ready so that we are ready to leave when the rest of the men are.”

Amundr and Saegrimr had each packed their meager possessions in a small bag the previous evening, so they grabbed their bags and followed Herfinnr to the stable just off the courtyard.  Their horses had been fed and were being saddled by stable boys.  “Four score mounted spearmen and a score of mounted knights will be heading out ahead of us to scout,” Herfinnr explained.  “They will make sure the road is clear and identify places for us to camp each night.  The foot men will follow at the best pace they can manage, and the rest of the horse will be following them.”

It had taken six days to travel from Eyjolf to Gudmund, but Herfinnr told them that the men might make it in four if they pushed hard on the return trip.  “We don’t have women and children, and we’re all men in good health or on horse.  We’re not as worried about being cautious.  I’d wager the Duke will push hard for three or four days and then take it easy and arrive in five days ready for battle.”

Their preparations complete, the three men led their horses out into the courtyard where many of the Duke’s men were gathered.  The Duke and his knights would lead a procession through the streets, picking up men as they passed barracks throughout the city.  Once they exited the city gates, they would peel off into a field to set the order of march for their journey to Eyjolf.

At a signal from the Duke, the men in the courtyard all mounted their horses.  He paused to speak to the men who were being left in charge of the defense of the city in his absence before swinging into his saddle.  He turned towards the gate, drew his sword and shouted “To victory!”  All the men in the courtyard drew their swords and shouted the same.

***

Amundr, Saegrimr, and Herfinnr found themselves in the last row of knights departing the courtyard.  Women of all ages lined the streets along with children and elderly men, cheering them as they proceeded down the winding streets to the city gates.  As they proceeded, Amundr noticed that men on foot and horseback joined their procession on several occasions.

As they passed through the city and to the gates, Amundr’s spirits swelled with the cheering crowd.  This was why he was here.  These were the people his forefathers had sworn to protect with their very lives.  This was his purpose.

He turned to look at Saegrimr on his left and noticed that his friend was similarly caught up in the moment.  Just past Saegrimr, Herfinnr was grinning.  “I see both of you have caught the alforn – the spirit of battle of the city of Gudmund.  Try to remember that feeling after almost a week on the road when the spirit of battle will really matter.”

They proceeded out of the city gates and the horsemen turned into an open field to the left of the road and dismounted.  The scouting party was sent on ahead and the foot soldiers were organized into companies ranging in size from thirty to two hundreds.  The foot soldiers began marching off down the road, and the last company was the batch of young recruits from Eyjolf.  Finally, after the two thousand foot soldiers had begun their journey, the remainder of the cavalry mounted their horses and Amundr and Saegrimr were marching off to battle the vergrinn.

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