The camp was quiet. An unpleasant mist had crept in overnight from the broad inlet to the south and as it spread over the encampment throughout the day the mood had grown increasingly subdued as the mist gradually thickened. Nearly twenty-five thousand men, practically the entire complement of The Order of the Golden Sovereign were spread out across the plain in a vast, disciplined array according to unit: spearmen, swordsmen, horsemen, bowmen, and irregulars. Sounds of laborers pounding stakes, smiths hammering steel, all the expected sounds of a military encampment were muffled. Even the horses were quiet, as if reluctant to intrude upon the heavy gloom. In front of the tents and pavilions, suits of armor in plate, chain, and leather hung upon practice dummies next to weapons racks, all draped with large sheets of woolen fabric to protect them from the moisture that hung heavy in the air.
The grey fog seemed to swallow up everything it touched. The brightly colored tents and pavilions slumped, laden with moisture and leeched of most of their color with only dim hues remaining to give a hint of their former grandeur. Voices seemed to disappear into nothingness within a matter of feet, forcing each man’s thoughts to reflect inward as their limited sight and hearing led to an increased sense of isolation; their well-known and orderly environment taking on a ghastly otherworldiness that confused direction and distance, twisting it into a shadowy landscape that by dusk had become unsettlingly forlorn, disquieting and unfamiliar. The evening meal passed with hardly a word spoken; each man taking his trencher to the scullery pavilion and washing it clean by rote, almost as if in a daze, then returning to their dark tents to pass the night in silence.
A warhorn pierced the quiet with a deafening blast. Years of habit and association with battle brought every man’s heart springing to life, jumping and pounding inside his chest.
It came again. Forsaking armor, each man grabbed his weapon and ran to his assigned mustering point. Swordsmen, spearmen, and bowmen, they formed up in ranks as their commanding officers waited. As each unit’s ranks filled, their commanding officer marched them toward the center of the encampment without explanation. The horn had been sounded, was the encampment not under attack? Why were they not setting up a defensive perimeter on the edge of camp? The men glanced at each other with uncertainty as they marched on, their commanders barking out orders to assemble in parade formation. The mystery deepened as each man knew that parade formation arrayed the units in a fashion that exposed each unit for inspection, all infantry units together; archery, artillery, rangers and irregulars, likewise, but made no sense as a defensive formation. The infantry units stood facing their supreme commander, Lord Marshal Trammel Pike, Master of Foot, a tall and lean figure with angular features that lent a dour seriousness to his sandy blonde shoulder-length hair. The archery units arrived to stand before their commander, Lord Marshal Fletcher Moss, the Bowmaster, his hands held clasped in front of him, his expression blank, his red hair clinging damp to his face. The artillery appeared lost and confused without their trebuchets, catapults, and ballistae, but faced their commander, Lord Marshal Stanton Harless, the Siegemaster, a broad-shouldered man of medium height, his close-cropped dark hair graying at the temples, his permanent scowl as visible as ever. Lord Marshal Morris Kettrick, the Rangemaster, and Lord Marshal Hayle Gordon, Supplymaster, stood likewise before their troops.
The horsemen arrived at their mustering point at the stables to find Lord Marshal Arthor Rose, Master of Horse, waiting. With a gesture, he bade them to stand down, leave the horses in the stable and follow him to the center of the encampment. They arrived to see the men arrayed in parade formation, their curiosity as to the purpose heightened when they were bid to form ranks behind the assembled Lord Marshals, facing the troops.
Grand Marshal Dunstan Molle, a fit and stocky man in his mid-fifties, strode to the center of the formation and passed out dozens of rolled parchments to his attendants who distributed them to each Lord Marshal. Each Lord Marshal took one to read for himself after distributing the rest to his subordinate Knight-Commanders, who after reading through the message once handed the Grand Marshal’s message to his personal herald, to be read to the men of his unit.
Knight-Commander Gorman, commander of the order’s irregulars, finished reading his message and handed it to his herald, Seren, standing back to allow the him room to pace back and forth across the leading rank of Gorman’s men as he raised his voice against the gloom.
“Men of the Order of the Golden Sovereign!” Seren began. “Hearken to the words of your Grand Marshal! We have been camped here for three weeks for our annual Crucibles where you have been trained and tested, drilled and depleted. You have given up your comforts and lost hours of sleep. You have been fed gruel in the morning and cold broth in the evening. Most of you are veterans and know the value of this. The new recruits among you who can adapt to these hardships now will find yourselves as prepared as we can make you for the actual campaigns we will undertake later in the year.
“I know you are tired and sore. But the weather has been kind enough to provide us with an opportunity to practice something we rarely have an opportunity to practice, and that is camp morale. A wet and dismal day has turned into a soggy, sullen night – but only if you allow yourselves to succumb to it. I saw quite a few veterans plodding about the camp today. You know better! A poor example you set for the recruits who joined us over the past month! The mood that you allowed to settle over the camp today is inexcusable!
“When Pike sounded the warhorn it was five minutes before the first unit completely assembled at its muster point! Five minutes! The camp can be completely overrun in four! If that warhorn had been winded for an actual attack tonight we would have lost hundreds of men, maybe thousands! And the rest of you would be wearing shackles right now and wishing for the luxury of gruel and cold broth!
“The Order of the Golden Sovereign is the best-trained military force in the world. We are small, but potent. Being the only permanently-standing military organization has allowed us to develop the tactics and strategy, the weapon techniques, that allow the men who come to be called Sovereign Knights and Sovereign Warriors to become the best in the world. In battle, we are deathly efficient. But war is serious business, men. The soldiers who came before you and who established the road you now walk will not ensure your survival. Only by training hard and learning quickly the techniques we have to teach will you increase your own odds of surviving long enough to achieve some manner of glory and your own measure of wealth.
“When you are dismissed from your ranks, you are to return to your camps. The Order of the Golden Sovereign will be in revel from now till First Watch tomorrow morning. The standard watchbill will be suspended. I want a standard watch complement made up of the most junior veteran soldiers among the units. The recruits will not stand watch, nor will the senior veterans. The junior veterans who are to stand watch will stand watches of one hour each and will remain sober until after their watches are completed.
“For the revelers, I want spirits to flow. I want stories told. And I want to hear laughter from one end of this camp to the other! We are the Order of the Golden Sovereign! Our exploits are to be celebrated! When cold mists assail us, we drink and we laugh!”
Shouts and cheers erupted across the formation as heralds from one end to the other finished reading the Grand Marshal’s message. Spears thrust against the sky and swords whirled overhead as the men of the Order of the Golden Sovereign began the revel early while they made their way back to their camps. Gorman’s unit of irregulars stood resolute. At a signal from their commander they broke ranks and moved off to their pre-determined positions, taking calming breaths and steeling themselves for what would be the most important night of their lives.