The Vikings were in the way. Their raiding had led them farther into Ashfeld than we were used to, and a large raiding force of them had taken up temporary residence in a conquered stronghold not far from their borders.
The stronghold was blocking the Blackstone Legion's advance, the walls protected for miles on both sides by a sheer cliff that dropped in a gaping chasm of darkness. Going around would take too long and undoubtedly prevent us from reaching the other half of the legion in time, so going through was the only option we had if we wished to meet up with the other half of their forces before they were destroyed by the Redhawk Legion.
It wouldn't have been a difficult task to destroy the stronghold and the vikings inside, but Apollyon demanded that we not show any hostility towards the vikings. At least not yet, not until she was ready for that part of her plan, so she had ordered me, Holden Cross, to find a way through that didn't involve angering the warriors currently residing within the stronghold. A fact I found resentfully amusing, considering the heathens were the ones staying in a stronghold that wasn't theirs in the first place, but I was loyal to Apollyon and did as ordered.
This was how I found myself being forced to wait until summoned by the viking leader, a big bear of a man known only as Ragnar. He and his crazy second Siv had been the ones to lead their raiding party this far into Ashfeld. Brave, considering they would have to get back to Valkenheim at some point, and it wasn't a short journey. The fact that they made it this far from their border was a rather lucky occurrence as it was.
I had a bit of trouble keeping control of the rage that was beginning to grow as I waited for an audience with a man that had no right being here in the first place, and Ragnar undoubtedly knew it. It was with this knowledge that he forced his 'visitor' to wait under guard for several hours before his curiosity finally got the best of him so that he ordered for the me to be brought in.
"Ragnar." I spoke up in a neutral tone. No way was I going to use fraudulent words with the savage, not that the my obvious contempt mattered. It only made the vikings surrounding me roar with laughter, and if I'd had my poleaxe I possibly would've split the table in two with my frustration.
"You seem to be upset about something," Ragnar stated, looking around the room with a grin before turning his attention back onto the lawbringer standing a few meters away, gesturing. "But I can't seem to figure out why."
The vikings roared with laughter again, while I merely waited for it to stop, face dark with a mix of emotions that didn't mean anything good for the massive warrior sitting in front of me.
"We need passage through this stronghold." I announced over the ruckus, silencing those still snickering. "My master requested that I do so without bloodshed, and would like to know your price."
Ragnar laughed loudly, his cronies joining in for a third time, the collective laughter creating a mortal thunder in the open room while I was forced to wait for the noise to cease.
"I didn't think your kind dealt with ours, especially considering we took this stronghold by force and executed all the soldiers that had been stationed here." Siv stated from where she sat nearby Ragnar, the berserker dwarfed by the larger man's bulk.
"I do not question my Master's orders." I answered firmly, body straightened in an authoritative way. "We know it's your nature to feed off of other's wealth since you're incapable of making your own."
The amusement in Ragnar's face was gone in a moment, replaced by a sort of anger any other man would fear, but I remained firm and unmoving as Siv leaned towards her leader, speaking rapidly in their language so the knight would be incapable of understanding. Finally, Ragnar looked up. "Supplies and a soldier or two."
I tried to process the statement, unsure of what was being demanded. "What?"
"Supplies. Food, mead, oils. A handful of your officers. That's our demand. In exchange, you will be allowed to pass through this stronghold unhindered." Ragnar repeated himself, looking rather smug with the way the knight was reacting.
"I cannot give you blackstone officers! That would make our passage through here meaningless!" I'd responded loudly, standing firm in my refusal. No way was I going to agree to that!
Ragnar shrugged his shoulders. "Then you don't need to pass through as badly as you first thought." The viking answered, tossing the chicken leg that he'd been holding to the dogs lying at his feet. They set upon it with a snarl, the bone splintering within moments as they fought over the meager portion.
"Surely there's something else you'd want?" I asked in frustration. I did not want to return to Apollyon in failure of securing our passage. "What purpose would you have for some of my soldiers?"
Siv was whispering to her leader again, motioning with her hands as if to emphasize her words, the bigger viking regarding her for several moments before turning to look at Holden again, the other warrior waiting expectantly. "Just one then. A blackstone soldier of high stature."
Even though his expression remained hard and impassive, I'd felt the anger begin to build again. "Out of the question." I responded sharply, the vikings murmuring to one another.
"We could just take you," another man stated from the far end of one of the tables.
I turned to face the new speaker, unamused. "Then you would have the full force of Blackstone falling against these gates within the hour and you wouldn't be able to withstand it long enough to pass the food you just ate." I answered sharply, turning to look back at Ragnar. "And I don't think you want to take that chance."
I turned to leave the room then, Ragnar's voice following after me. " Think carefully, Venn," he called after the departing warrior, "does the life of one soldier mean so much to your master?"
I had informed Apollyon of Ragnar's demands as well as how I'd refused to do as the vikings had requested, the warlord only nodding and placing a hand on my shoulder before she quietly left, vanishing among the thousands of tents. At the time I had truly had no idea where my master had gone until the next morning, when she informed meto get the force ready to march. She had gone and negotiated our passage herself, somehow reaching an agreement with the vikings that would allow the blackstone forces passage through the stronghold. Or maybe she'd threatened.
Thinking that everything would be fine, I had passed on the order for the soldiers preparation to Hervis Daubeny, my second in command, that he see to it that the legion was ready to march at Apollyon's order.
It wasn't until we had passed through the gates to where a small band of Vikings were waiting that I began to feel uneasy.
Some of the soldiers were carrying bags of different foods, mead, and other supplies, nervously making their way over to the towering savages to deposit their loads in a pile beside then.
Upon entering the stronghold, Apollyon had immediately made her way over to the waiting vikings before turning around to look in my direction. "Daubeny." She ordered with her usual emotionless tone, beckoning to the warden standing to my left and a little behind. It was then that I understood what was happening, my assumption that Apollyon had appeased Ragnar with promises of gold or food from the storage wagons proving false. She had gone and made the deal her second had refused to.
Even though he was helmeted, I could sense Daubeny's confusion as he obeyed. Obeyed the way he always did when ordered to do something.
The warden's confusion vanished quickly enough when one of the larger vikings grabbed a hold of his arm, easily jerking the knight off balance. Now Daubeny was no big man, he was small in stature, and compared to the viking he almost looked like a child, but he still managed to twist his arm loose while his free hand went for his sword, withdrawing it faster than his captors could react before whipping it around towards his assailant. The Viking flung himself backwards to avoid Daubeny's swing, but the blade left a trail of red across the muscled chest and left arm, causing the savage to snarl as his companions fell upon their prize. A kick to one knee had Daubeny on the ground, though he still valiantly managed to retain his grip on his sword, holding it in a defensive stance before it was quickly ripped from his grasp as the vikings grabbed a hold of his arms and forced them back.
Myself and the other officers could only watch as Daubeny was forced back to his feet, the bleeding viking stepping in front of him, the bulk of his body blocking the warden from sight for a brief moment, but by the movement of his right arm and the sharp cry that followed I knew he'd struck my second.
The viking stepped back and I could see Daubeny again. He had dropped his weight on the vikings holding his arms, helmet turned downwards as he attempted to regain his breath, body shaking ever so slightly before he lifted his head towards Apollyon. "Master," he murmured, voice breaking halfway through the word, but Apollyon still stepped forwards despite his weakness, clawed fingers tipping Daubeny's helmeted face upwards so she could look down at him. "Head up, my wolf," she whispered, "they have so much more in store for you."
Apollyon turned away from Daubeny then, the warden trying to pull himself free to follow after the warlord, desperation in his movements as he fought to get loose, the vikings laughing as they easily held him back. It was then that Daubeny turned to look at me, his commander, with a look that held so much betrayal and fear in it that it haunted me in the years to come.
"Sir? Sir, you can't let them take me!" He was saying, but Apollyon's hand on my shoulder had me turning away, had me following the rest of the army through the stronghold, but so did Daubeny's voice. He kept pleading, asking what he'd done, but I had no answer. Gave no answer. I'd left the warden there to die.
Apollyon brought Ademar to me that night. "Gifted" him to me as if he were a toy, a thing. "You're new second to do with as you wish " is what she'd said, and I had. I'd thought Ademar would be enough to replace Daubeny, but they were two very different people, like night and day. Not that it would matter. In time I'd forget Ademar's predecessor and be content with my current second. The nightmares haunting me about what happened to Daubeny would end and I'd forget.
I was never supposed to see him again, yet here he was standing right in front of me. The same man, the same armor design, but so different. The way he held himself, the way he spoke and conversed... This wasn't the wolf I remembered, nor the fight I'd expected when I was sent here to execute him for his "desertion".
When I grabbed Daubeny's sword, his grip tightened on it, refusing to let me take it, and I felt a flicker of hope. Hope that there was still fight in there, that that familiar defiance he'd shown every day he'd served me was somewhere underneath the current portrayal of cowardice and fear, but it vanished in a moment, Daubeny releasing his hold on the sword, and with it, my hope that he was truly back.
With the shorter's sword in hand, I walked over to the mercenary that had defeated Ademar in single combat -as well as spared his life- and knighted him. In front of both Daubeny and Ademar, the first of which just watched in an unsettling silence while the other projected a jealous air. Both of their reactions weren't what I had wanted or expected, but I ignored them while helping the newest blackstone recruit to his feet to hand him Daubeny's sword. I didn't realize until later how that could've been perceived as another betrayal on my part, even more so as I tossed the mercenary's sword at Daubeny's feet.
I was fully prepared to leave then, convinced in my righteousness of sparing Daubeny a deserter's death when something stopped me. Daubeny had somehow survived whatever he'd endured at the hands of the vikings as well as finding his way back to Ashfeld where he created an army, and I wasn't going to seize this chance?
I turned back then, regarding Daubeny in silence before I looked to my men. "Bring him."
It was that order that seemed to strike a fire in Daubeny, the warden snatching up the sword I'd thrown at his feet, proceeding to kill two of the men that attempted to take him. I knew that the ex-blakstone wouldn't be taken without a fight, wouldn't go quietly with the legion that had betrayed and sold him to a group fo heathenous savages that no doubt tortured him for however long he was in their possession. Blackstone wasn't known for it's kindnesses either, something that was no doubt running through Daubeny's head as he fought off any soldier attempting to disarm him. It had been Ademar that finally did so, that being the moment when I had to turn away. It was too similar to another scene that I couldn't forget, so I left him in the hands of Ademar and some of the other warriors. Something that could've been a grave mistake, Ademar thankfully being incapable of doing anything without orders, so Daubeny was more or less whole when he was transferred to a horse and restrained there.
I knew that Daubeny wouldn't be happy with his arrest, nor would he be happy to see me, but I had to know what happened to him. I had to know what my had betrayal cost him. Had to know if he was still Daubeny. If I could make things better.