The inner bailey is in chaos. Soldiers pour out of cramped barracks half-dressed. Horses whinny in their stables, refusing to be handled by the stable hands. Commodus wonders if they knew what is coming.
He squeezes himself thin between ranks of assembling soldiers, pushing his way through more. He is choked by the stench of salt, sweat, and beer.
He makes a quick count of heads, five hundred at best. He worries if there won't be more joining them. Some of them turn towards him, their eyes looking for answers. Commodus shies away, not daring to meet their gaze.
Suddenly the heavy stable doors swing open, the soldiers dart from the sound of hooves and the ring of heavy plates. Commodus is thrown to the ground by a runaway colt. Several hands help him to his feet.
"How many are there?" A knight asks in a clarion-sharp voice. Commodus looks up and seeing a silver swan on the helmet, his mind brightens.
"I counted five columns, at least," Commodus replies as he brushes frost off his cloak. "Ten thousand men will soon be knocking at our doors Amhardiel."
"Damn." Amhardiel's head sunk. He guides him across the stables.
"Do you have men on the outer walls? How long can we hold them?" The knight asks as they briskly march through the cramped quarters, past the horses and still sleeping soldiers.
"Marcellinus, Agrnir, and Vindollia," Commodus says. "I'm not sure how many men they still have between them. I'll wager at least an hour."
"An hour if they all die. They're barely half strength," Amhardiel clicks his tongue. "Can you spare any more?" He pushes his helmet off, taking in a deep breath of the humid air.
"I only have two more battalions fit for battle, both half-strength."
The two sits down on hay bales at the end of the narrow alley, beside another set of heavy doors. It sags slowly beneath the weight of Amhardiel's armour. Commodus pants and takes in a single sharp breath. The knight takes out his canteen and drinks. After a moment he rises and takes a few brisk steps around them.
"So around three thousand men between the five captains," He says as he thinks, "And another two thousand still wounded and cannot fight."
"One thousand three hundred." Commodus says grimly, "This winter has set too soon, and our soldiers are mostly from the South. More than five hundred have died from the cold and malaise."
The knight shakes his head before taking a deeper drink of wine. He sits back down.
"Do you want me up there?" He asks, "I'll do more good up there with the rest of us than on a horse."
He hands Commodus his canteen. He passes it between his hands and sinks into thought.
"I wager not." He replies after some time. Amhardiel nods attentively and sinks further into his seat.
Commodus yanks off the cork and smells the faint sweetness of the wine, gentle and earthy. He takes a sip; the sharp smell of pomegranates and silky touch of lavender rushes down his throat. He laughs, then hands it back to the errant knight.
"Does Inhelbeld know that you steal from his vintages?"
"Would it be stealing if he knew?" Amhardiel quipped.
The sharp spring of an arrow sprang in the distance. They sprung out of the stables and saw panic. It sunk itself into a wooden beam. Amhardiel plucks it out, it is tipped with strange idols and charms, and the shaft is coated red and fletched with crow feathers.
"How bold," Commodus says. "The madmen think they can kill every last one of us."
"They very well could," Amhardiel cautions. He snaps the arrow across his knee. "We've starved them for months on end, they're as desperate as us to end the war."
"Awfully calm way to proclaim our imminent death, reassuring."
"I could say the same about you, have you moved a muscle on your face today?" Amhardiel retorted.
There was shouting coming from the beacon-tower. Commodus turns to watch. The signal-fires were lit, but no fires rise further south. The beacons in the Hiemlyn woods stayed silent, and the fortress of Amon Dol does not answer. He grimaces as the soldiers around him gather and shout at the signalmen. Amhardiel stares at the fire and does nothing but follow the smoke with his eyes.
"Fabled swan-knight of Luhn," Commodus says solemnly. "It appears we fight alone today. Have your men on their horses. If the battle develops not in our favour, ride out and tell the world that Commodus was a brave man."
"I'll tell the world you are a good man," He says, tapping Commodus on the shoulder before re-entering the stables alone. "And you'll be coming back alive."
He shouts out orders to his knights in a language that Commodus has grown used to, its syllables tap and dance across the air, each phrase arranged in a rhythm that commanded immediate action. Commodus returns to the crowd.
As he runs towards the citadel, he notices an alcove lined with mottled shingles and chipped stones. A lonely statue is enshrined inside. Commodus stops and throws a copper coin in; he does not know why he does. No one knows, no one remembers.
He closes his hands, then claps twice. He knows not which deity of the old north is enshrined, but he prays to the hooded statue regardless.
He prays with a dreadful quiet, while the whistle of arrows grows more frequent and closer. The shouting of men has stopped, replaced with the rushed trample of boots and horseshoes. Amid the clatter of steel Commodus asks the divine for deliverance.