The column moved quickly through the night. People look at an army and assume that something so big, with so many moving parts, must spread slowly across the land. They are wrong. An army has thousands of moving parts, but each of those parts is a man; a man who knows he will taste nothing but military rations and not feel the inside of a woman until he reaches his destination. Armies move fast.
As befitting his rank, Genshal marched with the vanguard. A vanguard is a mass of irregular soldiers, typically the least trained and most expendable warriors. One mage is worth a few hundred untrained soldiers in a war, but a few hundred farmers with pitchforks will defeat a lone mage every time. The role of the vanguard is to charge head first into the opposing vanguard so that they can violently butcher one another, whilst the generals and the important troops practice the artistry of warfare. Being a soldier in the vanguard is not a job with long term survival prospects, but Genshal favoured it. Surviving was just a matter of practice, and the company was less intolerable.
The vanguard travels at the rear of an army on manoeuvres, only advancing to the front when it is time to get killed. Genshal had always suspected that this was so that the commanding officers don't have to look upon it as they ride. The presence of irregulars was taken as something of an affront by many of the generals. They had watched some extremely impressive wars from the backs of their horses, and probably felt they knew what I good army should look like.
Travelling in the rear suited Genshal's purpose. The front columns were always lined by scouts and sentries, surveying the terrain and guarding against surprise attack. Nobody cared much about surprise attacks on the vanguard. Similarly, nobody cared much if members of the vanguard fucked off into the night. They hadn't been paid yet, and there were plenty more men where those came from. A strong vanguard was essential in any conflict, but they weren't important in the way that cavalry or mages were important.
This particular vanguard was being overseen by Lord Kensal, a bannerman of the pretender King Theron – formerly Lord Theron before the country fell apart. Genshal had marched under Kensal's command before – the man was an oaf who resented being tasked with commanding the irregulars, and as such he typically paid late or not at all. This time Genshal had no intention of waiting to find out. As the columns finally slowed for the night, Genshal kept moving. He'd stayed with the column up till now since war had picked this country clean, and a man could no longer live off the land, but he had no intention of being smashed against the walls of Vespar.
To the south was a different army. No better commanded, no better equipped and just as doomed to failure as the one he was deserting. Genshal wasn't a strategist. He'd never read books or studied campaign maps, but half a decade of real soldiering had taught him a few simple truths. Valial was bigger than Valeria, therefore the Valien armies would be victorious in the end. 'King' Theron was the best tactician, 'King' Myres had the best positions across the country, and Elric Grey (who apparently was not a king yet) had the worthiest cause and loyalist men. Positioning, strategy and morale were wonderful things, but tended to pale in comparison to 'having a lot more soldiers than the other guys'.
No, Valial would win this foolish war in the end, but until that day came, Genshal's loyalty was to the man who would pay him the best. You can judge the strength of a master by how tightly he holds on to his purse strings. A strong man will offer you little, as you are of little value to him. A man who fears his sunrises are running out, he'll pay you whatever is asked. Elric Grey was going to die a painful death, but until that time, his stronghold of Vespar was the best place for a sellsword to ply his trade.
An army moves fast, but Genshal moved faster. An army has to march around obstacles, Genshal passed straight through. Considering what was approaching from the rear, Theron was doubtless keen to reach the stronghold of Vespar, but Genshal was still able to arrive at the gate a full day ahead of the attackers. He was dirty, hungry, tired and in a foul mood, but this represented little change from the past seven years. Grey had posted sentries around the outside of the city, but passing them was no challenge. When you're watching for an impending army, one filthy peasant doesn't merit a raise of the eyebrows, let alone an interrogation. And so it was that dawn found Genshal pounding on the gates of Vespar with the hilt of his bastard sword.
“Who goes there?”
“No one of consequence.”
“Are you of the People's Army?”
The dawn shift was evidently not given to guards possessing a great deal of imagination. Genshal elected to start again.
“I'm a mercenary, I seek employment and I have information on the army that will be arriving tomorrow.”
That got their attention. Genshal was ushered inside the gatehouse. The hapless gate guard was replaced by a hapless captain who, once Genshal determined did not have access to the army's coffers, was replaced by the mildly less hapless Sir Doyle. Doyle was a known quantity. If you have 'Sir' before your name then soldiers of fortune soon learn who you are – word travels freely around those who barter their blades. The man sitting across the table from Genshal was less idiotic than most, and also a true believer in his cause – both of these things made him dangerous.
“So you want to join the people's army?”, Doyle's tone was weary, and the bags under his eyes suggested that the man had received even less sleep than Genshal.
“You support Sir Grey?”
“I rather though not.” Doyle sighed, “So why join up? You may not have noticed, but we're all liable to die tonight. Most of our sellswords have been struggling to find a way out of the city. Why go the other way?”
'Because I'm not a fucking idiot' would have been the honest reply, but Genshal bit down on his tongue.
“You'll make it through the night.”, he said instead.
“You seem awfully sure.”
“I marched here with Theron's army. If your defences are good then he doesn't have the men to take the city - yet. Theron's a fool, but not a stupid fool. He needs the city, but he knows the Valean army to he rear is the real threat. Most of his magic and men and up north, protecting his rear. He's still got more men than you, but as long as the walls hold, you have a fighting chance.”
“You think we can win?”, asked Doyle.
“Win?” Genshal scoffed, “No. But you can keep from losing for a while.”
“So I ask again, why join us. If you think we're all doomed, why help?”
“Because you need me, and you can pay. I'm not going to die on your walls, but I'll help you hold them as long as you can meet my price.”
Once again Sir Doyle sighed, a look of resigned distaste visible across his face.
“I see. Mercenary though and through. I don't like mercenaries.”
“And yet you pay them anyway.”
“Normally, no. You people aren't worth spit. You take more than your give, and turn tale or turncoat and a moment's notice. Your kind aren't welcome under my banner...”
wait for it...
“But,” Doyle continued, “you've got this one right. We need every man we can get if we're going to hold the city. If you can fight, we can pay. Maybe you'll find something inside these walls worth fighting for.”
The old knight fumbled at his belt and tossed a small bag of coins across the table with a reassurance that, should they see another sunrise, there would be more. It would do for now – Genshal was sure that there was more to be picked up in the city itself. Refugees coming and going, trade backlogs and every armed man being summoned to the walls, a man could make a tidy living here, even without salary.
“Now,” continued Doyle, “I suggest you go and get some sleep. We'll need you on the east wall at sundown, and it would help if you're awake. There's an inn on the other side of the gatehouse – the People's Army sleep free... you will pay. But first... tell me about Lord Theron's army.”