"Commander... Your Highness," an Akielon messenger stuttered awkwardly. He was not the first.
"We have intercepted another of the Regent's scouts. None have gotten through to Fortaine so far."
"Good, keep it so," said Damen in dismissal. The messenger edged backwards a few steps, his hand hesitating halfway to a salute, before making a sharp turn and heading away.
It still felt vaguely surreal, walking the ramparts of a Veresian fort, Akielon men—his men, for all that they wore the colours of Nikandros—busy in the courtyard. The preparations for war were familiar: the distant clang of hot metal in the smithies, the scrape of whetstones as men checked their weapons for flaws and damage, the scurrying of laundry women.
Damen had visited Paschal earlier to ensure that the doctor had all the assistance he needed. There were piles of clean linens ready for those he could help, and drugs for those he couldn't. Damen found him testing a small group of men, soldiers who would double-up as surgeons on the field. As one stuttered out a patently wrong answer to Paschal's question, Damen could only hope he wouldn't come to need their untrained assistance. The stables were packed, every building within Ravenel was full and bustling with activity. Full of murmurs too, conversations that petered out whenever he approached.
It was to be expected.
Damen had but a few moments of solitude before another interruption to his thoughts. This time it was Guymar.
There was a pause before Guymar spoke, as though the words he wished to speak and those he should speak were battling for ascendancy. Damen had time to place a bet with himself as to which option would win.
"Commander," said Guymar eventually. None of the Veresians had addressed him as anything else. "There are fights breaking out among the men. Words have been said—"
Damen won the bet. Guymar was no coward. "About me," said Damen.
"Yes." Guymar's eyes flickered down, just briefly, but it was obvious that his glance was to Damen's arm. The wrist cuff was covered by sleeves now, but all would have seen it the previous day when he was in his riding leathers, arms bare. It was strange: when he wore both collar and cuffs, he could almost forget them, yet now he had just the one cuff, it weighed heavier on him than all three combined. And yet he didn't for one second regret his choice. No matter how it looked to men like Guymar. Or to Nikandros.
"That is to be expected," said Damen. "Ensure that they are too busy to fight. If their work is done, engage them in drills."
It was a dismissal, but Guymar didn't take it. Damen waited. He would allow Guymar to speak if he wished, but he would not invite it.
"We ... that is, none of us ... we did not expect our reinforcements to be Akielon." Guymar had been looking up at Damen, but now his eyes dropped and he turned to look across the courtyard. He spoke quietly. "It is hard to imagine Vaskian soldiers and Akielon soldiers fighting side by side. Our peoples have a long history—"
"I have been fighting by the side of your Prince," said Damen. A simple statement for such a byzantine circumstance.
Guymar nodded slowly, as though he couldn't help but acknowledge the truth of it. Damen thought he wanted reassurance, a promise even, but Damen had made promises, both public and private, and all he had left to offer was hope, not certainties. He could not promise all would go well tomorrow, that former—and possibly future—enemies would fight side by side and not turn on each other. He could only lead them all together and hope they would follow.
"May I speak freely?" asked Guymar, looking back up at Damen.
Some leaders might refuse, but Damen preferred to know what was in the minds of the men in his command, especially the men who would have the most influence on the rank and file soldiers. He wanted to know the state of their hearts. Understanding Guymar might be the key to understanding the army Damen would lead tomorrow.
"The men wonder how long Laurent ... the Prince," Guymar corrected himself quickly, "how long the Prince has been in bed with Akielos? And ... how much else of what the Regent has ... has implied about him is true?"
Guymar's speech shuddered to a halt, his eyes opening in alarm, and Damen realized that he had instinctively reached for his sword, his hand on the hilt before he was aware of his own action.
"The Regent's words are like a cup of fine wine with a few small drops of poison. All you can taste is the wine, but the poison will still kill you," said Damen, dropping his hand back to his side, consciously forcing himself to soften his stance. He unclenched his fingers one at a time.
Guymar nodded again. For all that the Regent was good at fooling people, perhaps something of his perfidious nature had slithered out into public view. No man, however clever, could hide his true character all the time. The rumours he'd had spread about the Prince were many, but no doubt there were rumours about the Regent too, less enticing perhaps by virtue of being truth rather than cleverly constructed lies, but still enough to make men wonder.
For now, there was only one question to ask.
"Will you fight for your Prince tomorrow?"
There was no hesitation in Guymar's response. Had there been, Damen would have had him removed from his post immediately. "Yes, I will fight for him."
"Put an end to the infighting. Tomorrow is the time to fight. Have them ready for an early departure," said Damen, and this time Guymar accepted the dismissal as such.
Damen turned back to lean against the wall, looking out over the surrounding lands.
He would not hear any news of Laurent until their noon rendezvous tomorrow, whether he'd met with success or failure. There was little point dwelling on Laurent's mission, nothing Damen could do now. They had planned it to the smallest detail, covered any eventualities the two of them could imagine, and yet Damen still suspected that Laurent had further plans, whether long-laid for such an eventuality or crafted from need, he couldn't say. But all Damen could do was leave it in Laurent's hands and concentrate on his own part.
Leading a patchwork army, men who'd fought each other in the past. More than half of them had believed him dead. The remainder... some believed him little more than a devious pet who'd wormed his way into the Prince's confidence; some thought him a worthy commander; and all now knew him as a prince-killer. He would have to prove himself yet again.
It was a good thing he didn't shy away from a challenge. If the two of them could win tomorrow, any impossibility could become possible for them. One day...
The sun was setting, a wide flush as red as the tide of Akielon cloaks that had flooded into the fort just this morning. Tomorrow would be a good day to ride into battle.
His room felt too large, empty without the presence of Laurent. It took him eleven paces to cross from one side to the other, his boots loud on the tiled floor, echoing. There were faint groves worn in the grey tiles. Perhaps anxious commanders before him had paced this room, questioning their decisions, debating the right moves. None would have faced what he awaited tomorrow. He doubted any had ridden out knowing that winning the battle might mean losing something—someone—far more important. Someone he'd come to care for more than he could ever have imagined.
Tomorrow he would stand in front of Laurent as Damianos. It would be public, with no chance to speak first or privately or soften the blow in any way. Laurent would be armed, blood still on his blade, the heat of battle still in him. And he would face Damianos, prince-killer. The man who left him brotherless and fatherless. The man responsible, ultimately, for the Regent being in a position to take power.
The man Laurent hated more than any other.
There were riding clothes and armour laid out on a chest. Leathers and fabric in the familiar Akielon style plus battle armour, sent over earlier by a messenger from Nikandros. Damen picked up the breastplate—it was good, strong but light—and ran his fingers over the raised pattern on the vambraces. Nikandros' messenger had apologised that there was nothing in Damen's colours, but even in the colours of Delpha, they were more familiar to him than the fine fabrics and interminable laces of Vere.
Beside them were the armour and garments Laurent had provided. They were similar in many ways, both practical designs, fine quality.
Damen left the decision to the morning.
For now, there were more pressing issues to attend to. For all that he had pored over maps of the border regions with Laurent, he needed to do so again. Nothing could be left to chance, not with the stakes they were playing with. Not one kingdom, but two, might be decided by the outcome of tomorrow's battle.
Strange to think now of the trust he was placing in a man he had despised only months ago. A foppish prince, he'd thought, unfit for battle. And tomorrow he would ride into a battle that he would likely only survive if that foppish prince had the skills that Damen now saw in him. If Laurent had failed to besiege Fortaine today, the Regent would not only have his own army tomorrow, he would have Guion's men too, and there would be no noon rendezvous.
The day quickly grew hot as soon as the sun rose. Damen had grown up with this heat, worse, sweating under training armour, hair plastered to his scalp.
Then, when he was a young prince, he'd worn Akielon armour. This morning, though, he hadn't hesitated when he ordered his servants to dress him in Veresian attire. They were well trained—not a single one had reacted in any visible or audible manner.
"I thought you'd be dressed as an Akielon." Jord spat out the words.
"This is comfortable," said Damen. He reached out and took Jord's arm. Firm, but not so tight that Jord could not release himself if he chose. He didn't; he stood still and waited. "I am well aware of your feelings towards me. They are, however, irrelevant. Your loyalty to your Prince is the only important thing today. So I want you by my side."
"You want me in the battle?"
"He'll find out the truth today. And he will hate you for it," said Jord, emphatically. His mouth twisted up in satisfaction at that prospect.
Damen knew this. Dreaded it. Cursed himself for not speaking up when he had the chance, when he could have somehow dulled the pain of the revelation. But he couldn't let it distract him. "Fight by my side," he repeated.
Jord wavered. His desire to fight was strong.
"I thought you would fight at Nikandros' side. Or draft one of his men."
"I would rather have you. I want the best warrior at the front with me." It was the simple truth. In the absence of Laurent, there was no one he'd rather have at his side than Jord, no matter the words that had been said between them, and the promise unavoidably broken.
There was a trace of pleasure and pride in Jord's eyes, but it was gone in an instant. "As you wish, Commander," Jord said, and followed him to the centre of the courtyard.
Damen mounted the dais slowly. He reached the top step, the patchwork army of Akielon and Veresian soldiers ranked before him, Nikandros, Jord and a few others behind him. The men silenced as he looked over them, not even the scuffle of a sandal or clank of armour breaking the hush.
He looked at the men, and as he let his gaze wander over individual faces, he remembered the Akielon scout he had killed. The scout would have been friend to some of the men in front of him, would have fought beside them. They would never know what happened to him, and Damen could never tell them. He wished it was the last Akielon life he would have to take, but heading south .... Taking back his kingdom. There would be more.
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
Grand speeches had never been his forte. He imagined Laurent would take more pleasure in this moment than he was. But it was important. He had to inspire and he had to unite, and simply riding at their head would not be enough.
He began in the Veresian language. "You see the gold band I wear on my arm." He raised his arm high. "It is no longer a sign of slavery, but a promise. A promise to your land, to all of you. To your Prince. I stand before you now as a servant of two lands, a man who wants nothing more than to bring peace to both. I ride for your Prince, the rightful heir of Vere. I fight for him. Today we fight the serpent who has stolen the crown and poisons the soldiers of Vere by making them fight against the man who should rule them. I am a servant to the just cause of your Prince, and all the good men who fight for him."
He continued in Akielon, his first words in that language causing a murmur across the ranks, quickly muted with little more than a steady look. He thought of what his father might have said now, the way he used to inspire his men. The battle scars he bore, and the pride he had in them.
"I am Damianos, your Prince." A loud cheer arose, and he waited for it to die down before continuing. "I bear scars," he said, thumping his shoulder with his fist, "scars of a warrior, scars I carry with honour. Today we ride to scar the enemy, to bring pain to those who wrong us, to rain down retribution on those who deserve it. To destroy the evil that has crept across two lands, taking what is not theirs. We will destroy that evil. We will have peace. We are warriors, yes, but we are men too, fathers and sons and husbands, and we fight to bring peace to our families. And when we have done that, when we stand on our soil knowing they are safe from harm, we will proudly show the scars we gained today, and say we stood at Charcy."
He repeated his last words in both languages, raising his voice to carry to the furthest man. "Ride hard today. Fight as brothers. Fight as one. As one," he repeated, and the refrain was picked up by the men next to him, and then by others, until Ravenel was echoing with the cry: As one.
Damen gave the signal to move out even as the cry still resounded around the fort. There was no time to waste. The Regent would not be late, and neither would Damen. As for Laurent, Damen could only hope he would not be late either.
The scouts—both Akielon and Veresian—returned within the hour, the flanks of their horses heaving, sweat pouring down the men's faces with the heat. Each reported in his own language as they briefly rode one on each side of Damen, but both reports were essentially the same. The two armies were a match in size.
On a level playing field, skill would dominate eventually. Skill of the leaders and the training and experience of the men. They were not on a level playing field. The Regent's army had reached Charcy first, and had, as expected, taken the higher ground. They would have the dual advantages of a better view of the battle field, and the impetus to be gained from charging downhill.
The Regent would be confident.
Over confident. Damen was relying on it. On an enemy who would see exactly what he would expect, who would believe he was about to call checkmate. Who would have the upper ground and be looking forward, not behind him.
Damen kept the pace steady, fast enough to reach Charcy before the sun reached its zenith, but not so fast that the horses or the men on foot would be exhausted. The terrain was rolling, bare dry grassland, easy marching for an army, though enough stones lay hidden in the grass to necessitate a careful eye to avoid stumbling. His horse was well-trained and sure-footed, but Damen still checked for hidden dangers. Hubris had been the downfall of greater men than him.
The Regent's herald rode out to them with six horsemen ranged behind him. The flagbearer didn't bear the Regent's personal flag, but that of the King of Vere. Even from a distance it was visible, the message obvious. All who rode against the Regent's army—Damen would not dignify him with the title King, not even in his head—were making themselves an enemy of Vere. And of Vere's new ally, Kastor.
The herald was a tall, swarthy man, on a great stallion that must measure seventeen hands. He had the visage of a man always accustomed to looking down his long nose at others, but had to lift his eyes to speak to Damen. Damen sensed his discomfort and surprise.
"Where is the traitor?" asked the herald.
"The traitor is behind you, he leads your army," replied Damen, letting his voice carry. "The traitor is he who would steal the throne from the rightful ruler, who would proclaim himself king when he was tasked with caring for the rightful king, his brother's remaining son. The man who betrayed his family."
"I speak of the traitor who beds with Akielos."
Damen grinned, a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Ah, you speak of the rightful Prince, and in so doing, dishonour your position. He is otherwise engaged."
The herald remained expressionless. "You have until noon for the coward to show his face and surrender so that your lives may be spared. If he does not, you will all pay the penalty for taking up arms against the King."
The herald didn't wait for Damen's response, spinning his horse and galloping back to the Regent's army, the other horsemen following. Not that Damen would have surrendered, or offered any prospect of a truce, and they both knew Laurent would not treaty. The Regent's life became forfeit when he butchered Nicaise.
The sun was still ascending when the Regent's trumpets sounded and his army began to march forward.
Damen had expected nothing less. The Regent had not given him cause to trust any word he offered. Damen was ready. His men were ready. He gave the signal to the drummer. They moved forward, slow and steady and determined, marching to the beat the drummer set.
The Regent's men were well-drilled, moving as one, ranks of cavalry at the fore, infantry tight-massed behind, their archers protected at the rear. Damen had expected nothing less. Many of them would have been trained by the King, Laurent's father, and Prince Auguste. They would not break easily. The sun glittered on their armour and weapons, and the ground reverberated like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Ahead, to the left and to the right, all Damen could see was men marching into battle, shields up, spears high.
"The Prince will arrive, will he not?" called out Nikandros under the cover of movement, the jangling of bridles and stomp of hooves and boots ensuring that nothing less than a battle cry would carry past the two of them.
Trust me, Laurent had said, the last words before he'd ridden away. "Yes, he will be here. He will be here at noon," said Damen firmly, aware as he spoke of the height of the sun in the sky.
The Regent's army were almost upon them, a perfect line, shields raised in formation. Damen had time for one last word before there was no time left to think. He turned to Jord, riding at his other side.
"We're fighting for Laurent," said Damen, and saw understanding in Jord's eyes.
Damen's horse raced under him, held in check only by Damen's light grip on the bridle. He could feel her excitement, the strength of her under his thighs.
And then... He was swept up in the melee. The front lines shuddered with the force of the attack, but neither halted, just slowed, the speed of approach dulled to a crashing shove and thrust. Horses went down around him, and his own slipped once as the dry grass turned to a slippery, bloody mess. He saw Jord raise his sword just in time to stave off a spear, and Nikandros judder with the force of a sword against his shield.
"Hold the line," ordered Damen, and heard the call pass along from man to man, no one voice able to carry far in the pandemonium.
Blood splattered his arm. Not his own, though he wasn't sure he'd feel pain immediately even if he were hit. He was caught up in the rush of battle, the tumult that let a man perform feats that sounded incredible in the telling afterwards, yet at the time required no thought. Thought was impossible anyway; this was what he had been training for since he was old enough to hold a sword, sense-memory taking over from rational thought. He jabbed his sword into the armpit of a soldier, into the small crevasse where his armour didn't protect him. He didn't stop to see the man fall, but pressed onwards.
He could see a flag—the flag of the King of Vere—ahead. He raised his sword and pointed. That direction. That was where they needed to make the main thrust. He wanted the Regent in his sight, his sword at the traitor's throat. Damen wanted to see his blood spill. He wanted this for Laurent—if he could give him nothing else, if he could never speak civilly with him again, never hold him, never kiss him until he turned from sharp to limpid, never hear the soft sounds he made when he let go, never wake up to his private smile, at least he could give him this.
He could destroy the monster that would put his nephew through such cruel games.
Men were falling, then being trampled on. Their line was pressing forward, then pushed back, forward, back, a swaying morass of fighters. They were too closely matched. Back more, the advantage of the higher ground telling. He could still see the flag when he could spare a glance upwards, but he couldn't get closer. His arms were tiring, but still he slashed anyone in his way, shouted orders to be relayed along the troops.
"Forward," he cried. "Forward." Jord was pressed to his side, legs clashing as they tried to force their way ahead.
The sun was above them now. The shadows were short, harsh and black and unforgiving, no soft shroud over the dead or wounded. All the ugliness of war was visible. It was noon. Time for their rendezvous.
All he could do was hope that his trust had been well-placed. Believe that the man he'd judged so wrongly at first had the skill and strength to carry out their plan. Have faith that he wouldn't be late.
And as he thought of Laurent, a cry came up, a massed cry loud enough to carry. The rear of the Regent's army was under attack. It was impossible to see clearly, but there was a spearhead of blue and gold striking towards the same goal Damen was striving, and the line in front of Damen was wavering as their forces were being split in two. Just a momentary waver, but it was all he needed.
He didn't feel his exhaustion any more. He could fight forever. The rider in front of him veered away, fear on his face. Damen didn't care how he made passage forward, whether men parted for him or he struck them down or felled their mounts. The noise of battle washed over him, groans and shouts and the crash of weapons faded. All he could hear was the sound ahead, the cries that told him that Laurent had arrived. He felt the relief in the men around him, Veresians and Akielons alike, out of all proportion to the number of men that Laurent must have been able to bring with him. He was their Prince, and he was in the fray, and they would fight for him.
A flurry ahead. Commotion, and the sounds of confusion seeped into Damen's consciousness. There was something new happening ahead. A broadsword nearly caught his arm, but Jord was there, deflecting. They fought well together, for all their animosity. There was the blood of other men mingling with the sweat on the flank of his horse, but she was steady under him still. She kept her footing even as her hooves stepped on the shattered armour of fallen men.
Damen turned to Nikandros and raised his sword arm, once, twice, jabbing at the air. Nikandros repeated the motion and his herald took up the command, trumpeting the call to press forward. The rider in front of Damen went down. Damen moved back in his seat, willed his horse up over the fallen mount. There was no clear landing on the other side and his horse stumbled. It saved his life, a spear meant for his fighting arm sliding harmlessly over his brigandine. It was a good sign.
A cut off scream. "The Regent flees." Damen could not guess at the source of the words, but he knew immediately that they were true. The Regent's men were still fighting, but their hearts were faltering. Their line was no longer steady and their battle cries were weaker. Their hope was spilling out with the blood of their fallen comrades, and their strength with it.
The uproar ahead, that must be the Regent and his inner circle moving against the tide of their own men. It was the sign of a coward, a man who would leave his own men to be destroyed. Damen could see it on the faces of the men who turned to look over their shoulders as the Regent's colours moved off the battlefield.
Damen would not let him escape. The rest were immaterial—allowing them to flee was part of the battle strategy; cornered men fought more ferociously than those given a path to escape—but the Regent was his. Damen wanted his life. He wanted to stand over him and watch the light go out of his eyes. He thought of Nicaise. He thought of Erasmus. He thought of Laurent, and he urged his horse forward.
Damen remembered the rest of the battle as fractured moments. His destrier taking a glancing blow on her flank, but barely faltering beneath him. Lifting his sword and bringing it down with deadly force against the neck of the Regent's commander. His own cry of frustration as the Regent slipped further away from them, fleeing in the one direction none of Damen's or Laurent's men could reach in time to head him off. The sound of trumpets calling for retreat as the Regent's men fell apart, leaderless, no one left to fight for. The bloodbath as the cavalry dispatched the unprotected archers and infantry men.
The first clear sight of Laurent through the melee, his golden hair uncovered and shining almost as bright as the sun, or at least, so it seemed to Damen.
Dismounting and standing next to Laurent, their forces finally joined.
The purple bruise on Laurent's jaw, a reminder of the punch Damen had landed.
"The Regent escaped," said Damen, and he couldn't keep his voice steady. He wanted to say I'm sorry, and I let you down, and he wanted to say so many other things, but Jord was there, and Enguerran and Guymar, and he did not want witnesses to the words he needed to say.
They stood in the centre of the battlefield, dismounted, their horses restless by their sides. Damen leaned on his sword, suddenly weary.
Laurent spoke eventually. "That... that is only to be expected. It does not concern me."
"But..." Damen shook his head. It wasn't a matter to dismiss as of no importance. They had won the battle, but Damen had still failed.
"It was inevitable. You didn't really expect to bring him down in one pitched battle, did you?" He spoke as a seasoned warrior would speak to a novice.
Yes, I did. That was exactly what Damen had hoped. It wasn't part of the plan they'd hatched out hastily two nights earlier, but he'd let himself hope. More than hope. He'd imagined the moment, so sure of it.
"Your Highness," said Nikandros, riding up to them and dismounting. Damen couldn't help turning at the title; both he and Laurent turned their heads as one. "Damianos," Nikandros clarified, and Damen finally understood what men meant when they said their blood ran cold. He felt it within him, a chill spreading through him as he waited for Laurent's reaction, every breath a conscious effort. It was as though he were waiting for the executioner's axe, the weapon poised above him waiting to fall. Every fraction of a second dragged. "The Regent's men, some have laid down their weapons, but the remainder continue to attempt to flee. What would you have me do?" Nikandros continued, but Damen barely heard the words.
Laurent must have heard, surely, even with the hubbub around them. Unless he had misheard. Heard the name he expected to hear. Damen took a deep breath, in and out, and another. He tried to force out an answer to the question, but Laurent spoke first.
"Let his men flee. They will head towards Fortaine, even though they must have wondered at the lack of reinforcements. Perhaps they still judge them no more than late. As for my uncle, he is long gone. He will head north, no doubt. We are in no position to chase him down now." He sounded as icily calm as if he were discussing a day's hunting and the loss of an old hound. He didn't look towards Damen.
Enguerran had been silent until now. "But will not the men serve to strengthen Fortaine or break the siege?" He was wounded, a gash on his arm bleeding sluggishly, though not such that it presented any threat to his life. There was a dirty rag tied around the wound, caked dried blood on it. A reopened wound from whatever skirmish they met up with at Fortaine, then, not from today.
Laurent looked tired, bone weary, though his posture gave no sign of it, simply the dull smudges in the fine skin under his eyes, and the way he blinked too often, eyes that wanted to close.
Last night, with all the worry of the battle ahead, Damen had not realized how much relief he would feel to see Laurent arrive safely. Even though his secret was out, he was still glad—more than glad—to see Laurent. He rallied. "In such small numbers, they will be of little use, and no threat to the siege party." Though as he said it, he wondered. Laurent had ridden up with close to a hundred men. That left little more than twenty to hold siege to Fortaine, well nigh impossible.
Laurent looked at him, his expression inscrutable. "And in their current state, defeated and some wounded, they will weaken morale."
Laurent was ever the shrewd thinker.
Damen held his gaze. "Does the siege hold?"
"Your Highness—" he started. "Laurent," he said more quietly, moving forward as he spoke, though he had no idea how the sentence should end. He didn't want to ask practical questions about the siege, how Laurent could be confident so few were holding it. He wanted to ask impossible questions with impossible answers.
He didn't have the chance to ask anything. Jord stepped forward, boldly and unambiguously placing himself between Damen and Laurent. His jaw was set.
He received no rebuke from Laurent.
The chill in Damen's blood was replaced by a burning sensation, as though his body couldn't decide which way to torture him. He needed to move, to work. There were wounded to be taken back to Ravenel, weapons to be gathered from those who'd need them no more. The men needed water and food. That he could organize.
He turned away without further words. He strode among Nikandros' men and answered questions. He handed off his horse to a soldier. "Rub her down and put a blanket on her," he ordered. She would need to cool down slowly after a battle like today. He would have cared for her himself, but now was not the time to lose himself in work like that.
One of Nikandros' commanders shared a skin of water with him; Damen used some of it to wipe off the blood splatter and grime. The man was gone before Damen could thank him, heading towards a tent being hastily erected on a flat portion of land to the north of the battlefield.
The aftermath was like that of any battle, full of unpleasant tasks. Nikandros' men were fast and efficient, but the sound of groans still carried over the clamour of men working. They were the victors, but they had still lost many men.
From a distance, Damen watched Laurent and Nikandros head inside the command tent. He should have followed, but he didn't.
He felt the passage of time, saw men come and go from the tent, gave orders of his own, but didn't once lay eyes on Laurent.
It was halfway between noon and sunset when Jord came to him. "He wants to see you," he said. And then, coldly: "he will never forgive you."
"I know," said Damen. After all, how could he be forgiven?
There was a table in the centre of the tent. Maps laid out on it, weighted down at the corners with goblets and a dagger, and Laurent beside it, tracing a line with his finger. Nikandros was shaking his head, but at what, Damen couldn't tell. They were both still in full armour, as was Damen.
"Ah, Damen, you're here now," said Laurent, as though he were greeting a tardy acquaintance. Friends. Is that what we are? Laurent had asked, high up on the battlements at Ravenel, just days ago. There was no intimation of anything as warm as friendship in his attitude.
"Attacking Fortaine now is foolhardy. The men are tired, and it will be dark before we arrive." Nikandros sounded as though he had presented this argument before.
"Exactly," said Laurent. "So they won't be expecting us. They will be bedded down for the night, a few watchmen keeping an eye on the surrounding troops."
"Speaking of which," Damen interrupted. "How many men did you leave holding the fort?" Keeping the reinforcements in Fortaine from joining the Regent had been crucial to their strategy. If Laurent had left so few men that the defenders might have been able to attack and break the siege, then today would have been lost.
Laurent was quiet, and when he spoke, it was as though it was for Damen only. "I still have men loyal to me, men who remember my brother. The men of the Marches have no love for my uncle."
"You didn't tell me they would come." Part quiet rebuke of a withholding of details, part plea for a return to the openness they'd begun to have. Though that was built on a lie, and they both knew it now. Damen had no right to rebuke or plea.
"They came by sea. I couldn't know for certain if or when they would arrive. Winds can be uncertain at this time of year, especially along that part of the coast."
Damen was glad Laurent was not as friendless as he seemed. But still, the idea of attacking an old fort such as Fortaine in the dark was surely madness. And if Laurent were ignoring Nikandros' misgivings, then Damen had to be the one to speak.
"We cannot attack at night, even with the benefit of surprise and numbers. We have no siege engines, no catapults or even scaling ladders, unless your friends from the Marches have come equipped."
"We won't need them," said Laurent. "The gate will open as we approach."
"I see," said Damen, who most certainly did not see. He walked around the table, as though looking at the map from a different angle might give him some insight. It didn't.
"I have bribed the gatekeeper," said Laurent. Of course. Damen should have expected that. "He will open the gate. And he will ensure that the majority of the men at arms are in no fit state to fight."
Damen hardly dared ask. Yet he did. "Is he going to drug the water supply?"
Laurent looked affronted. "Of course not. That would affect everyone, women and children and servants as well as soldiers. Besides, Fortaine has a series of deep wells, designed to withstand siege—it would be hard to judge the amount of drugs required. He has drugged the barrels of drink."
Damen didn't bother to stifle his laugh. "So we will walk in through an open gate to be met by soldiers who can barely stand upright."
"I'm sure there are some soldiers who won't have drunk anything stronger than water, and who will be able to put up a fight. But, essentially, yes. If we attack tonight, the fort should fall."
As was the case with Ravenel, the fort would fall with no damage to the fort and minimal to the inhabitants. No one should ever underestimate Laurent.
Preparations to move were made quickly. Laurent ordered the body of the Regent's commander to be bound and slung over a pack horse. It would be an unsubtle gift for Guion, showing him what happened with those who allied themselves with the Regent over the Crown Prince.
They rode out at a brisk pace. Everyone wanted the day to be over, to get their second victory and rest. Everyone except Damen. Laurent had still given no sign that he had heard Nikandros address Damen by his true name. He rode tall in his saddle, discussed details with Enguerran and Nikandros and occasionally Damen, their relative positions at the head of the army shifting as they spoke with one another. Damen thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy in Jord's eyes, though he must have been mistaken.
The ride was long enough for Damen to begin to feel the aches from the battle. He spared a moment of gratitude to Paschal for his ministrations and ointments when his back was healing. Without them, he had little doubt that the muscles in his back would be far more knotted and painful than they were. What was it that Laurent had told Paschal to say to persuade Damen to accept the treatment? Ah, yes. The better it healed, the better able he would be to swing a sword and kill many people.
He had swung his sword and killed many people today.