A Failure of Diplomacy

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Traumwald came into sight above the trees. Philomena studied the silhouette of the castle, rising up from the crags. She leaned over and said to Rainhart, "For how long do you think they've been able to see us coming?"

Rainhart looked up at the sky, which was a clear blue with only a few clouds "Several days already," he replied. Wincing, he rolled his shoulders, and Philomena's neck twitched in sympathy. As they had expected, Valdon had increased his attacks, with small groups of Traumwald men, cloaked with darkwood, shadowing alongside the column and picking out any weakness. Daily, they heard the clang of steel, and saw messengers running up the line to report another skirmish to Tancred. The only answer was to push onwards, to reach Traumwald as quickly as possible and dig in. For the last two days they had been travelling at a forced march, snatching a few hours' sleep here and there. 

"Would you like me to tie you to your saddle?" said Rainhart.

Philomena shook herself out of an exhausted daze and looked over at him. "Could I have a nap if you did that?" she said.

"Mm." Rainhart nodded. He took his reins in one hand and leaned over, pointing at her knee. "You take the rope from here, hook it around the saddle, then..." He dropped his hand. "Of course I couldn't do it until we stopped, and given that I see an attendant riding down the line with more dried meat and biscuit, I suspect Tancred is planning a saddle-lunch again."

"Blessed few," Philomena groaned. "You know, I felt so cooped up at Breg."

The sun was fading behind the mountains by the time they reached the foot of Traumwald Castle. As Rainhart had warned, the clearing around the hill bristled with spikes facing out from a wooden palisade. They heard Tancred give the order to encircle the castle and make camp.

Tancred came and found Philomena as she was stretching out the kinks in her back. "Would you consider sharing a tent with Holle?" he asked.

Philomena blinked. "Of course," she said. "That would save the attendants some work."

Tancred nodded. "Space is at a premium, unfortunately. We are on Valdon's ground, so I want to concentrate the camp as tightly as possible. I will share with Konrad, and I plan to see whether Lord Cassius is amenable to having Rainhart in his tent." He turned, mind already on the next problem. Then he returned his attention to Philomena. "I doubt Valdon will try anything tonight," he said. "He will have some grand plan, I assume, that requires an audience, and that means daylight."

"Can you feel the Darkwood?" said Philomena.

Tancred closed his eyes and breathed deeply, and for a moment he was peaceful. "Yes," he said. "Over that ridge there is the river. And upriver there is the Darkwood."

"When can we go there?"

"I don't know." Tancred shook his head. "We've penned Valdon up in his eyrie. For now that will have to be enough. We will see what tomorrow brings, and then make plans." he reached out and took her hand. "Thank you for standing by me," he said. 

Philomena smiled. "You try and get some sleep," she said.

"Perhaps with the Darkwood singing to me, I will," Tancred replied.

* * *

Lined up, row on row in front of the palisade and out of range of the Traumwald archers, they watched Valdon and his entourage make their way down the track from the castle. He rode on a grey horse under a parley flag, armour glinting, surrounded by guards. Shading her eyes against the sun, Philomena searched their faces, but she knew none of them, nor could she feel them in the still place. Rainhart and Holle were on either side of her, Tancred in flanked by Konrad and Lord Cassius.

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