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Chapter Fifteen

 The men of the muster of Gudmund had lost two hundreds in this battle.  The vergrinn had lost twelve hundreds.  The total number of vergrinn dead in the two weeks since the invasion had started was two thousands, while the duchy of Gudmund had lost fewer than four hundreds.  By any measure, the men of Gudmund had won a decisive victory, yet to them it felt otherwise.

The baron and his men had met the Duke at the gates of the city at the conclusion of the battle.  The baron guided them down the narrow streets of Eyjolf toward the keep.  As he turned to speak with the Duke, he glanced around, looking for Aoalbert.  “Is Aoalbert with you?” he asked.

The Duke and Herfinnr exchanged a dark glance.  The baron did not fail to notice this.  “Is he…dead?”  The baron appeared stricken.

“He lives, milord,” Herfinnr offered.  “He remained at the citadel.  It would be best if we discussed him later.”

The baron looked around at the small company of men and said “Yes, of course.  Your men must be exhausted.  We did not hope to have relief for several days yet.  We have food and fire.  I would not enter any of the buildings out in the town alone until we can ensure no vergrinn remained behind.”

“Thank you.  We would appreciate it,” said the Duke.  “Perhaps you and I can withdraw to your study and discuss a few matters after we see to the men.”

“Of course,” the baron called for several men and began issuing commands regarding the preparation of food and arrangements for lodging.  As there was insufficient room in the keep, the men would be camping on the open plain before Eyjolf, but they would have large watch fires and doubled sentries.

***

Before the baron and the Duke withdrew to converse, the Duke held a council of war in the baron’s hall.  He called upon the baron.  “Before we do anything else, let’s hear the full tale of the siege of Eyjolf.”

The baron grimaced.  “They took the city a few days after we sent our women and children away,” he said.  “We withdrew to the keep and were hard pressed to hold them out.  If the women and children had still been here there would not have been room for all.”  He took a deep breath before continuing.  “They came in the still of a foggy night bearing ladders and scaled the wall.  We lost many men holding them back, and we feared we would not hold the keep.  Yesterday after sunset a large force of them withdrew from the town and headed south down the road and we hoped that meant you were on your way.  If they had kept up their determined assault, I don’t know how much longer we could have held out, even in the keep.”  He gathered his thoughts.  “The vergrinn are smart.  All the old tales described them as vicious brutes.  These beasts had the cunning of the best hunters.  They lulled us into complacency and struck only at the most opportune times.”  With sadness in his voice, he finished, “If they return in numbers, we cannot hold the city.  The keep is too small to house the defenders.”

The Duke said nothing for several minutes.  Finally he spoke.  “We must send scouts to track these beasts back to their homes.  We must find their dens and destroy them utterly.  We will do this in the morning.”  With that he dismissed the men and withdrew with the baron for a private conversation.

***

“It is as I feared,” said the baron.  “I believed Aoalbert was not up to the responsibilities and I hoped beyond hope that such a journey would help him find his way.  I regret the loss of my men on that journey, but the story of their heroism will lift the spirits of my people for years to come.  Eight stood against five hundred?  Truly?”

The Duke nodded.  “Your men have fought and died well.  The youngest no less well than the eldest.  You did well sending the younglings along as part of the muster to protect the women and children.  If folk in all towns raised their young like the people of Eyjolf raise theirs, the kingdom would stand forever.”

“Like all people of Eyjolf save the baron himself,” the baron said, rebuking himself harshly.

“You have done well in all matters surrounding these difficult times.  I will not judge you based on the actions of your son any more than I would judge him based on your choices and actions.  The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”  He paused.  “I will speak to you of the other young men.  Amundr, Saegrimr, and the rest.  As you know, I have knighted Amundr and Saegrimr.  They are of the Order of the Stone, and their duty is now to myself and my lands.  Until the vergrinn are defeated, I would take the rest of the men you sent to Gudmund as your contribution to my muster.  You may keep every man who remained in Eyjolf for the siege, but Stigr, Fastbjorn, and even Herfinnr will be mine along with all the young men.”

“All the young men?”  The Duke nodded.  “Even Aoalbert?”

The Duke nodded yet again.  “I think Aoalbert needs to learn the lessons we learned as lads – that the responsibility of the nobles is to serve the people, not be served by them.  To that end I will be stripping him of his knighthood and assigning him to serve one of my knights as a squire, until such time as he has proven his worth and may reclaim his title and his station as your heir.”

The baron was horrified.  His only son was being removed from his station.  He stared at the Duke in silence as he mulled this over for several long moments.  “You think he will learn humility?”

“He will.”

“You will keep him safe?”

“As safe as any squire may be during time of war.”

The baron was silent for another moment before he found his voice.  “It would be good for Aoalbert to learn humility and the meaning of sacrifice.  Which knight is he going to serve?”

***

The next morning the Duke sent three parties of scouts out to hunt down the vergrinn that had escaped.  He gave explicit instructions to them to track them back to their dens and report back on their locations.  The men were selected from among the best trackers and woodsmen and were sent on their way by mid-morning.

Other, larger groups were sent to evaluate the condition of nearby villages and round up the livestock that had fled in terror from the vergrinn.  The rest of the people thoroughly searched the town of Eyjolf by daylight to ensure that no vergrinn had remained behind before assembling in and around the church to give thanks for their salvation.  That evening, after the first groups sent to search the area returned, the Duke proclaimed that there would be a celebratory feast the next night.  Much of the livestock had survived and while many homes were destroyed, few people had been lost.

The celebratory feast was enjoyed by all.  Amundr and Saegrimr found themselves in the unaccustomed position of being the center of attention for many young ladies around their age.  Saegrimr danced and talked and laughed with many of the girls, but Amundr sat quietly nearby.

Finally Saegrimr came over and spoke to him.  “Little Mundi, enjoy yourself!  We have not only saved our people, we have won honor and glory and have joined the ranks of the nobility.  If there was ever a night to celebrate, it is tonight!”

Amundr looked at Saegrimr, about to speak, then closed his mouth.  He looked down, then looked out at the crowd of people enjoying themselves, then looked back at his best friend.  “You’re right.  This is what we fought for.  This is what the others died for.  We’re here so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly!”  Amundr got up, accepted an invitation to dance, and celebrated joyously for the rest of the evening.

***

In three days time the first of the scouts reported back.  They immediately went to consult the baron and the Duke.  Their faces looked grim and their horses were almost dead from exhaustion.

The baron and the Duke were waiting for the scouts in the great hall of the keep.  The baron was slightly dismayed by the similarity between this meeting and one held a few weeks before.  The scouts came in and bowed to the Duke and then to the baron.

“Were you able to track the vergrinn?” the Duke asked.

“We were,” Stigr said.

“Did they return to their dens?”

“No milord.  We tracked them until they met up with another force of their kind coming from the mountains to the north.”

The Duke and the baron looked at each other.  “Another force?  Heading this way?”

“Yes milord.  I anticipate they will be here in three days.  The remainder of the scouts are positioned at various points between here and there to gather more information and report back.”

“How many were there?”

Stigr hesitated.  “Milord, we were not in a position to be able to see their entire force.  What we did see numbered over ten thousands.”  The Duke sank back into his seat.  Ten thousand vergrinn.  The force they had faced previously had been but the vanguard of this larger force.  Ten thousands was almost twice as large as the force he brought with to Eyjolf and the force he had left to guard Gudmund combined.  Eyjolf was lost, and Gudmund might very well be also.

“Summon the people.  We are withdrawing to Gudmund.  No one is to remain behind.”

The rest of the day was spent planning and organizing the withdrawal.  Every cart and wagon was laden with goods and with people who were unable to walk long distances.  The Duke and the baron divided these into four groups and assigned just under a quarter of the men at arms to journey with each group.  The Duke was tasked with leading the first group and the baron was entrusted to lead the last group, which would include the livestock.  Amundr and Saegrimr were assigned to the first group of men who were returning to Gudmund with the Duke.  Saegrimr’s father Holmr was sent with this group so that he could spend some time with his son.  A hundred men were left at the keep to await the return of the scouts.  They were given explicit instructions to leave no later than the morning Stigr had said the vergrinn might arrive.  The scouts returned, were met by their comrades, and departed for Gudmund.

Eyjolf was abandoned to the enemy.

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