Arn Alone Sword Hilt Held
At breakfast the next morning, space at the table had been cleared for the many guests. Brand was placed near one end, by Ciarán’s right hand at the seat of honour, while his men were dispersed along the sides. Opposite Brand sat a whiterobe while the sons and daughters of Ciarán took the remaining nearby seats.
“You must bring a tale worth telling with you, Lord Adalbrand,” the lord spoke as the worst of hunger had been sated. “Now that rest and nourishment has been provided, I hope you feel prepared to share what has brought you to Lochan.”
Many eyes turned towards Brand expectantly, who inclined his head. “A small price to pay for the kindness shown to me and my men. It all started upon my return to Middanhal in early spring,” he began to relate.
“This porridge could use some salt,” Sandar remarked, poking his portion with a spoon.
“Ever the malcontent,” another thane mentioned.
“Don’t take it to heart,” Sandar replied with a disarming smile. “In fact, after weeks on the road, this place is like a palace to me. The captain was right to bring us here.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Alaric told him.
“I doubt they’ll be happy feeding another fourteen mouths unless we do something in return. Since they have no need of warriors that I can see,” Alaric explained, “I imagine we’ll politely be asked to leave one of these days.”
“I’ll enjoy it while it lasts, in that case,” Sandar declared, shovelling porridge into his mouth.
“I’ve been in lots of battles,” Matthew stated proudly. Around him sat a few boys and girls his own age or younger. “We won all of them because my lord is the best captain there is.”
“Don’t outgrow your breeches just yet,” Geberic warned him. “I don’t recall you ever swinging that sword in a fight.”
“Of course I have,” the sergeant protested with a grimace.
“Have you ever killed anyone?” asked one of the children, staring with wide eyes.
“No,” Matthew muttered, making Geberic laugh.
“Eat your meal, boy, and put some flesh on those bones.”
“I’ve not seen a decent bow since we got here,” Quentin mentioned while glancing around with suspicion in his eyes.
Nicholas sent him an odd look. “So?”
“It’s a bad sign,” his friend claimed. “These people don’t respect archery.”
Nicholas could not help but laugh. “How do you figure? Because you haven’t seen any bows?”
Quentin nodded towards the rest of the table. They were seated at the end opposite the lord of the house. “They put all the blade boys further up the table than us. Even the bloody bard sits better than us.”
“I think,” Nicholas remarked mildly, “that has more to do with you taking ages to wake up in the morning, and me being kind enough to wait for you.”
“I don’t like it,” Quentin declared, glancing around again. “It’s not natural.”
“A harrowing tale, Lord Adalbrand,” Ciarán spoke. “It is disheartening to hear how dishonourable behaviour corrupts the holy city. We are fortunate to be far removed from such, enjoying the peace of our own lands,” he added with a strict look towards his sons.
“Hammer and quill! It boils my blood to hear of such injustice,” the whiterobe at the table declared in a loud voice. “Even the best of laws do not suffice when broken by those charged to uphold them. By Hamaring, I find it intolerable!” He emphasised his exclamation by slamming his hand into the table, causing bowls and cups to jump around.
“Yes, thank you, Brother Caradoc,” the lord spoke, wiping errant porridge from his cup. “Your enthusiasm for justice is admired by all.”
“Can nothing be done?” the whiterobe asked of Brand.
“As you said, those meant to uphold the law are those guilty. Short of marching an army to the steps of the Citadel, I do not foresee the situation changing,” the young nobleman replied with regret.
“There is already war in Adalrik,” Ciarán quickly interjected. “We should not wish for matters to escalate. Especially not if it might spill into the high lands. War is all too recent a memory for us.”
“War is like the tide,” the whiterobe growled. “It is only a matter of time before it returns.”
“That may be true for Adalrik or even the other tuatha,” Ciarán spoke curtly, “but while I am ri tuaithe of this place, Lachlann will not make one move to seek battle.”
“We all wish for peace to return,” Brand claimed. “My own sister remains in Middanhal. For her sake if nothing else, I pray for an end to war.”
“Perhaps if you settled here, she should join you,” Ciarán suggested. “In fact, I gave it some thought last night.”
“What are your thoughts, my lord?”
“Many farms lie deserted in the high lands after the war,” the nobleman explained. “That includes your family lands. They are not extensive, but with work and plough, grain will grow. I would be happy to lend you seed, oxen, lumber, and what else you might need, even hands to help build your hall.”
“That is a most generous offer, Lord Ciarán,” Brand admitted.
The nobleman shook his head lightly. “The land is yours by right, and the whole túath will benefit if you put it under plough. Famine is always a threat if the harvest is not good. We need more fields growing food for us. Not to mention,” he added with a wry smile, “our neighbours will be less inclined to trespass, knowing you and your men hold Garmagh.”
“I had not considered this,” Brand confessed. “In truth, I thought any land that ever belonged to my mother’s family would long have been lost.”
“Many villages are empty. Even in Lochan, houses become derelict,” Ciarán related. “For this reason, I would not hesitate to offer your gallóglaigh a place in the túath,” he added, nodding towards Brand’s men. “Blood of the high lands means less than a willing heart in this case.”
“I am grateful,” Brand told him. “I will give your suggestion due deliberation.”
“Do that,” Ciarán nodded. “Until then, you remain as my guests. You are welcome in Lochan.”
After breakfast, the drakonians and heathmen split into smaller groups, each having its own purpose. Some went to investigate Lochan and locate its taverns or handle minor errands. Nicholas and Quentin found bored guards or townspeople to make bets with concerning feats of archery, while Matthew explored outside the city in company with the lord’s youngest son. Glaukos and Alaric stayed by Brand’s side, following their captain wherever he went.
“Have either of you ever been to Heohlond before?” Brand asked them.
“No,” Glaukos simply answered.
“I never left Adalrik,” Alaric admitted.
“There is little to impress men accustomed to Middanhal or even Tothmor,” Brand considered. “But the place is orderly and not crowded,” he added, glancing around as they walked down the street. “Given how remote we are from the rest of Adalmearc, I imagine life is peaceful here.”
“How are your boots, milord? Anything to cobble?” a hawker called out. Glaukos sent him a menacing look until the cobbler shied away.
“It is rather quaint here,” Alaric remarked. “There doesn’t even seem to be a marketplace, merely peddlers lining the streets or the occasional workshop. There will probably be many things we can’t necessarily get here. I doubt they have a decent armourer or blade smith.”
“We will certainly have a hard time getting our boots cobbled while Glaukos is with us,” Brand mused.
“He came too close,” Glaukos growled.
At the centre of town, the trio reached a building larger than its neighbours; unlike them, this one was built of stone. Its great doors wore intricate carvings, and the arched doorway was similarly ornamented. “Hamaring’s temple,” Alaric observed.
Brand entered the altar room, making his protectors do the same. A whiterobe wearing the garments of an acolyte was sweeping the floor. “Oh, milords,” he exclaimed. “I did not expect…” He did not manage to finish the sentence.
Brand’s eyes strolled past him to take in the sights of the hall itself. “Regardless of your expectations, you may be at ease. We require nothing. I simply came to see the temple.” The stone walls were bare, which along with the open doors made the room cold; on the other hand, any kind of tapestries or carpets would have obscured the countless carvings etched everywhere. Floor, roof, walls, every inch was covered in depictions of countless scenes etched into the stone.
“This is breath-taking,” Glaukos stated.
Alaric bent down to let his finger follow a warrior, whose full size was about a grown man’s arm. He was clad in magnificent armour, leading a valiant fight against numerous, less detailed foes. “The legendary King Caradoc, my namesake,” a voice boomed.
Alaric leapt to his feet and Glaukos turned on his heel to face the entrance; Brand, already facing it, nodded in greeting. “Brother Caradoc. We were admiring your temple.”
The whiterobe, who had broken fast with them at the hall, walked inside. He pushed the sleeves of his robe up, revealing strong, hairy arms underneath and the fact that he seemed to wear little else underneath his religious garments. “Hammer and quill! Always so warm in this room,” he grumbled, turning his attention to the visitors. “I am pleased these little carvings made by my brothers caught your fancy,” he added with a grin.
“It must have taken decades,” Alaric considered.
“Centuries,” Caradoc corrected him. “The temple has a book detailing the life of each priest in this temple and what additions he made. According to the book, the first stone was laid in the year seven hundred and twenty-two,” the priest elaborated, “and the first carvings were begun three years later.”
“Those are impressive records,” Glaukos granted.
“Every temple of Hamaring has one. Knowledge is strength,” the whiterobe replied, reciting an adage of his order. “What use is a bear without strength?”
“Still good for a fur coat,” Brand remarked casually.
Caradoc stared at him for a moment. “Hah! I’ll remember that one.” He gestured towards the altar. “I am guessing you came to see where your parents were wed?”
Brand had been glancing idly at the etchings, but he whipped his head to stare at the whiterobe. “Pardon me?”
Caradoc nodded towards the altar, upon which stood a great bear on its hind legs, raising its paws. “This is where your father and mother married. I wed them myself some twenty-odd years ago.”
The confusion cleared from Brand’s face. “Of course. I had been told as much, yet somehow did not connect the pieces.”
“I’ve tied a lot of young folks in my time, but an atheling of Sigvard,” Caradoc grinned, “that one sticks to your memory.”
“It is a beautiful place for a wedding, be it for nobility or commoners,” Brand remarked.
“Aye,” Caradoc nodded. “Who knows,” he continued with a twinkle in his eye, “if you accept Lord Ciarán’s offer, you might stand where your father once stood.”
“Perhaps,” Brand replied politely. He inclined his head in farewell and turned, leaving the temple.
“Quite a character,” Alaric said once they were outside.
“Whiterobes tend to be,” Brand added.
“I killed several of them in Tothmor,” Glaukos remarked, making both of his companions stop to look at him. “They were plotting against the queen. We gave them the chance to surrender.”
“I wonder what the records at the temple in Tothmor show,” Brand considered dryly. They resumed walking.
“I was wondering, milord,” Alaric began hesitantly.
“Are you considering Lord Ciarán’s offer?”
Brand smiled. “Are you worried that I will make a farmer of you, Alaric?”
“I suppose my hands can wield a plough as well as a blade,” the thane considered. “I have no concerns, milord, I follow the course you set. I only wish to know because I expect the men will be asking me sooner or later.”
“Tell them to be patient. The course will be set in time,” Brand replied. “In any case, I consider it too soon.”
“For what, milord?”
“For waging campaigns or sowing fields. The thaw has yet to come.”
A few days passed for the drakonian exiles in Lochan. Lacking any purpose, the men sought one where they could. Glaukos and the kingthanes sparred with each other and the lord’s gallóglaigh. As for Geberic, sometimes in company with Nicholas and Quentin when they were not busy impressing the locals with displays of archery, he made a virtue of learning the location of each tavern in town, comparing their prices, beverages, and the temper of both patrons and staff.
“We’ll skip this one,” Geberic muttered to himself, followed by the heathmen. They had left their bows and arrows at home and seemed uncomfortable.
“What’s wrong with this one?” protested Nicholas as Geberic led them down the small, winding streets of Lochan.
“I strongly suspect they skimp on the hops when brewing,” he responded. “Ah, this one. Full mug for three coppers.”
“I’ll drink anything that’s wet at this point,” Quentin grumbled.
The three men entered a small establishment that was little more than a big room with tables and chairs. A few barrels stood against the wall next to shelves filled with tankards. Along with disinterested glances from the men already drinking, they were met with the sound of a lute playing. “Huh, I didn’t expect that,” Geberic admitted.
“This can’t be a reputable place if they let Troy ply his trade,” snorted Quentin.
A woman appeared from the back room, putting clean cups onto the shelves. “What’ll be for ye, good masters?” asked the brewster, looking at the newly arrived.
“Three ales,” Geberic told her, and they sat down at an empty table to listen to Troy playing.
“Nobody’s talking, and it ain’t because they don’t like strangers,” Quentin remarked with a suspicious glance. The other patrons were all listening to Troy intently.
“I’ve never been to a tavern where nobody talked,” Nicholas considered.
The brewster placed three cups on their table and took a round through the others, grabbing and refilling as needed. Geberic seized the tankard in front of him and took a heavy sip. “That hits the spot,” he uttered with satisfaction.
Troy finished his song and received applause from the locals. Slightly confused, Nicholas clapped along. “They seem to genuinely like it,” he said perplexed.
The bard bowed before his audience. “A short break before I’ll do another, if it pleases the people,” he spoke with mirth and was met by roars of agreement. As general conversation began across the room, Troy moved over to his friends. “Fancy seeing you lot here,” he smiled.
“These people seem quite happy with your tune,” Geberic told him.
Troy was beaming. “They do, don’t they? This town is incredible. In Hæthiod, you’re lucky to be allowed indoors at any public house, and they’ll watch you like a hawk, thinking you’re a thief. Here, these stone faces crack into wide smiles and they listen happily.”
“The highlanders have a reputation for music,” Geberic nodded. “Best bard I ever heard at Cragstan came from the other side of the border.”
The owner of the establishment placed a cup overflowing with drink on the table in front of Troy. “If you’re going to sing, best you bathe your tongue in beer, my dear father always told me,” she laughed before returning to her duties.
“Much obliged,” Troy grinned, tasting his drink. “Bitter,” he acknowledged. “They didn’t spare the hops on this one.” Geberic’s eyes darted from his own cup to Troy’s with suspicion creeping into his expression.
“What song were you playing, anyway?” asked Nicholas.
“Arn of Old,” Troy replied. “The captain suggested I tried my luck with it, and he was right. It’s been well received every place I’ve been.”
“The captain suggested that one? It sounds like he might be getting a little lost in the past,” Quentin scoffed. Nicholas looked at him without understanding, prompting him to continue. “Arn of Old? The captain is an Arnling.”
“Right, right. I never thought about that,” Nicholas admitted.
“I think,” Troy interjected, “the captain suggested it because it has a whole army of highlanders marching to Arn’s rescue, fighting for him in Adalrik.”
“Yeah, that one is always popular in the highlands. I didn’t realise you knew the story,” Geberic said to Troy.
The minstrel sent him an offended look. “I just sang the song,” he retorted with a scowl, “of course I know the story!”
“I didn’t think you bards listened to yourselves when you sang,” the man-at-arms explained with a shrug. “Only explanation for how some of you sound.”
Troy grabbed his beer and emptied it. “I’m not the one paying for my drink in here,” he replied smugly. “Now if you will excuse me,” he continued, standing up and grabbing his instrument, “I have work to do, which unlike yours doesn’t involve maiming people, but leaves them happier than before.”
The others watched him return to the middle of the room, strumming his lute. “That description would also fit a few women I know,” Geberic remarked casually, and his companions burst out in laughter.
Some days after his arrival in Lochan, Brand was walking the entire circumference of the palisade walls with two thanes at his back as usual. The young captain stopped on occasion to inspect a certain area, asking questions of the few guards on post before continuing.
“Strange that Lord Ciarán or his forbears have not considered stone walls,” Brand mused. “There must be quarries nearby that could supply the material.”
“Maybe they don’t feel it’s necessary,” one of the thanes suggested. “If I recall, Lochan surrendered without fighting to the Order during the war rather than resist.”
“That would explain why the town was spared,” Brand considered, walking at a leisurely pace.
“Milord!” Another thane came running along the wall from the direction of the hall.
“What is it, Sandar?” asked Brand with a frown.
“Some travellers brought news,” the warrior replied, catching his breath. “They say there was a battle in Adalrik, or a skirmish of some sort.”
“The Hawks fought Isarn and lost. Not only that, but they killed Prince Hardmar!”
The other thanes looked at each other in amazement. “I can’t believe it,” one of them remarked.
“We made the right choice being here and not there.”
“I’m glad that little –” Sandar caught himself, glancing at Brand.
The latter was staring out from the palisade onto the open fields that surrounded Lochan. He took a deep breath. “As sure a sign as any,” Brand muttered before turning to face his men. “Gather the others. We need to make our preparations.”
The rest of the day, the drakonians were busy. Troy went from tavern to tavern, playing the same few songs as instructed by Brand. His thanes sought out the gallóglaigh in Lord Ciarán’s hall, measuring their thoughts and intents, while Geberic was sent into town. As the latter returned to his master, he found Brand in conversation with Doran, eldest son and heir to Ciarán. The man-at-arms waited at a respectful distance until he saw the noblemen part.
“Geberic,” Brand called out for him to approach.
“Any luck, milord?” Geberic nodded in the direction that Doran had left.
“I think so. He is young. Close to my age,” Brand added with a smile. “And he is eager to see more of the world than this corner of the Realms. I dare say others think the same.”
“Did you ask him?”
Brand shook his head. “I thought it best to remain discreet. There is a good head on his shoulders – no need to point anything out to him.”
“As you say, milord.”
“Did you see the whiterobe?”
“Aye, milord. He was only too happy to talk of the war,” Geberic explained. “He feels slighted by the Order, I’d say, and Middanhal. Feelings run cold towards drakonians and Adalrik among him and his flock.”
Brand nodded. “I thought as much. Good. We should be ready for tonight.”
That evening, the topic of every conversation was the death of the crown prince. Some of the highlanders found it exciting news; others saw it as tragic tidings. None were gripped with outright sorrow; they were not drakonians, and in Lochan, they felt far removed from Adalrik.
“I say fair riddance to him!” exclaimed Brother Caradoc. “It’s clear this prince held little regard for the rule of law.”
“He should have stayed out of battle if it was too much for him,” declared the eldest son of Ciarán casually.
“Mind yourself, Doran,” his father chastised him. “Until you have proven yourself in battle, you should not speak of it.”
“When will that be, Father?” the young man complained, grabbing his cup of ale to drown his disappointment.
“Never, if I have my way,” Ciarán told him with a stern look. “What say you to this news, Lord Adalbrand? Do you rejoice in the death of your enemy or mourn the fall of a kinsman?”
“I would say the good prince and I were too far removed for any bonds of blood to matter. Certainly it did not matter to him when he shouted for my head to leave my shoulders,” Brand considered. “I will grant that the knowledge of his demise sowed thoughts in my mind with decisions to reap. But before I speak further, I have a small request.”
“Speak it,” Ciarán told him graciously.
“I have in my company a bard. As I know the value placed on song in the highlands, I would let him perform his skill for your court tonight, Lord Ciarán,” Brand offered.
“A fine proposal,” the lord spoke, and the others assented loudly. “Let him play!”
The command was sent down the table to Troy, who grabbed his lute, stood up, and bowed before the local lord. “In recognition of the valiant nature inherent in the highlanders, I wish to perform Arn of Old.” Applause and cheers rose in response. Troy took another bow in recognition, smiling, and began playing.
“Heed my harrowed tale of pain, hale and hallowed king felled,” Troy sang. “Adalrik and athelings slain, Arn alone sword hilt held.”
The highlanders sat or stood in rapture, whether they were nobility, gallóglaigh, or servants. Barely a breath could be heard; none spoke or touched cups, knives, or food to cause the least sound. They listened in terror as King Sigtrygg and his second son was slain in foul ambush, followed up by the jarl of Vale usurping the throne, executing the king’s heir. Their hearts soared upon hearing how Arn brought an army of highlanders from Heohlond, coming to the aid of the northern jarls and rallying them to his cause. Exuberance filled the room as the song came to an end with Arn taking his rightful place upon the Dragon Throne and a highlander queen by his side.
As the audience clapped and voiced their appreciation, Troy took his seat after a final bow. Brand, on the other hand, rose to stand. “I have been well received by the túath of Lachlann,” he began to speak, receiving murmurs of approval. “Heohlond is where my mother was born, and I do not doubt that a long and happy life could be mine in this land.” He paused. “Yet Heohlond is also where my father died, fighting injustice. Though it cost him his life, he fought those who would oppress their brethren. Like Arngrim before me, I feel compelled to fight.” He stressed the last word, and his voice rose in strength as he continued. “Like Arn before me, I will leave the highlands with every warrior willing to take up arms against usurpers, kin slayers, and oath breakers!” His gaze swept over the assembly. “I make no demands, no requests. Peace is the right of every man, and I ask of none to follow me. If need be, my sword shall fight solely on the field.”
All of his men leapt up, some with slower comprehension than others. “I am with you, captain!”
“I’ll follow you!”
“To death, theirs or ours!”
This spurred a number of the highlanders to do the same, including Ciarán’s eldest son. As the hall broke out in clamours of war, only the lord remained seated, sighing in defeat.
The following morning, the local priest of Hamaring stood outside his temple. He wore a chain shirt under his white robe and a war hammer in one hand, a sack of supplies in the other. With him stood a woman his own age and his young acolyte.
“Be good to your mom while I’m away, boy,” Caradoc instructed him, holding him around the neck affectionately.
“I will, Father,” the acolyte promised.
“There’s a good lad. Mind the temple as best you can,” the priest added.
“You mind you come back in one piece, Caradoc Whitesark,” the woman impressed upon him.
“I’d never dare otherwise,” the whiterobe mumbled with a smile. “I fear you more than the Hammerhand.”
“This is no time for acting merry,” she scolded him, but the sting of her words was softened when she sniffed and had to wipe her eyes.
“Come, come, wife,” Caradoc chastised her gently. “They didn’t get me the last time, and they won’t this time either.” He placed a kiss on her lips. “You’ll see me again before you know it.”
A procession of warriors was leaving the hall down the main street, headed for the gate in the other end of town. Caradoc marched over to join it, only turning back once to wave to his family.
“Brother Caradoc,” Brand greeted him with a nod.
“Lord Adalbrand,” the whiterobe replied. “Lord Doran,” he added upon seeing Ciarán’s eldest son among Brand’s thanes.
“I did not know you had a mind for war,” the young nobleman mentioned.
“Hah! I’ve crushed more skulls with this hammer than you’ve plucked flowers,” the whiterobe declared.
“I have never plucked a flower in my life,” Doran pointed out a tad offended.
“By that count, I’m right,” Caradoc laughed, as did most others within earshot. “Besides, the honour of the high lands is at stake! Arngrim of House Arnling was the first decent drakonian I ever met in my life, and I’m proud to march next to his son.”
“Brother Caradoc,” Brand spoke with a light tone, “you are welcome in our company.”
The band, more than three times the number that had followed Brand to Lochan, marched along the only cobbled road in the lands of Lachlann. It led west, connecting their seat with that of the neighbouring clan and the rest of Heohlond; on occasion, dirt roads spread out like legs on a caterpillar, reaching villages and the tin mines in the south by the mountains.
When afternoon came, it was time for another rest. Some of them dug out what provisions they had brought, sharing them; a few went foraging or hunting, promising to catch up later in the day or tomorrow if need be. Meanwhile, Brand held a small counsel with Geberic, Glaukos, and Alaric.
“Find out if any have relatives or relations in other towns and clans,” Brand instructed them. “We need to spread the word, especially in the north. It is doubtful whether any from Clan Cameron will come, but the northern clans suffered most in the last war.”
“They’ll be eager for revenge,” Geberic agreed. “Should we send official messages to the other lords? Lord Ciarán may have rooted feet, but that doesn’t have to be the case for others.”
Brand shook his head. “I do not wish to be seen encouraging the highland lords to attack Adalrik.”
“Without proper support, we will run into trouble,” Alaric cautioned him. “We have few provisions, and harvest is still months away.”
“True,” Brand granted, “but I have no qualms about approaching the lords of Adalrik. As long as we can manage until we cross the border.”
“My lord,” Glaukos spoke up, gesturing to direct Brand’s attention.
A woman approached the men; unusually, she wore a great sword by the hip. The blade was so long compared to her own height, she had to hold the sword hilt pushed forward to keep the tip of the scabbard from scraping against the ground.
“Gwen,” Brand greeted her with a smile. “I did not expect this.”
“One of your men passed by Garmagh earlier today,” she explained. “He told me you were returning to Adalrik. To war.”
“I’m coming with you,” she declared.
“I would have thought you had seen your share of war,” Brand admitted.
“Living with only ghosts for company gets tedious,” Gwen admitted. “Besides, you cut firewood for me,” she continued haltingly, glancing away. “I reckon we’re kin, and this is where I should be.”
Brand smiled. “I reckon it is.” He glanced at the small gathering of warriors. “We continue,” he commanded. “Adalrik awaits us.”