While northern Adalrik was overrun by armies, Middanhal itself seemed undisturbed by war for the most part. The Order garrison was slowly returning to strength, patrolling even Lowtown and maintaining law throughout the city. Goods still flowed through the southern gate, allowing commerce to proceed nearly as usual. Some things were becoming scarce, such as stone, wool, or iron, but few people took notice of such shortage yet.
As long as parchment, paper, ink, and quills were plentiful, tranquillity reigned in the royal library. Pushing the door open, Egil entered and greeted Kate with a weary expression. The former placed a heavy tome on one of the tables, and the latter abandoned her letter practising to take a look.
“History of the Riverlands,” she read aloud. “It’s bigger than I thought.”
“Imagine me, I had to haul it all the way from the temple,” Egil complained, catching his breath after the stairs. “Not to mention, those whiterobes were loath to even lend it to me.”
“Did they give you any trouble?”
“They just made a fuss. They can’t deny the King’s Quill anything. Or his apprentice. Besides, they’ll get it back once I am done copying it.” Egil sent a glance towards the door of his master’s chamber. “Is he still sleeping?”
“He’s still inside if that’s what you mean. I don’t know how much he actually sleeps,” Kate replied.
“I see.” Egil took a deep breath, picking up the book. “I might as well get started on this.”
“Are you ready for this work?” Kate questioned him. “It’s awfully big. Have you ever copied a book before?”
“No, but there’s nobody else to do it, is there?” Egil snapped. “We lack this book in our collection, and it’s my responsibility to amend that.”
“I know,” Kate mumbled. “I just thought maybe you should start with something smaller.”
“Small or big, it’s the same work. Put letters on the page.” The boy hauled the tome with him into the scriptorium, and Kate returned to her bench.
Soon after, the door opened to admit Prince Inghard. “You may stay out here,” he told the kingthanes accompanying him; they nodded briefly and turned to face the corridor with bored expressions while the young prince stepped inside, holding a book in his hands.
Kate hurried up to give a bow as deep as she could without falling over. “My prince,” she spoke.
“Kate,” he greeted her with a smile. “Egil,” he added as the scribe joined them in the hall.
“My prince. Have you finished it?” Egil asked, gesturing towards the book in Inghard’s hands.
“I have. It enjoyed it immensely,” the prince confessed. He handed the book over to Egil. “Sir Etienne’s story reads better than any play from Fontaine I have ever watched.”
“It’s hard to imagine one person going through so much,” Kate added, nodding eagerly while Egil placed the book on a shelf. “I only wish it had gone into more detail about his time as a prisoner in the South.”
“Yes!” Inghard exclaimed. “It feels like this was only half the story. And I wonder what happened to him after Tricaster.”
“Well,” Egil said smugly, turning to face the other two. “That’s actually possible to find out.”
“No, really?” asked the prince. “How?”
“The Order keeps records of everything,” Egil explained.
“And he means everything,” Kate emphasised. “Eight hundred years’ worth of scrolls.”
“Some of them are really fragile,” the scribe admitted with a guilty look.
“We read through them one day,” she continued. “The Order records where the knights go,” she elaborated, “and after the siege of Tricaster, the records say that Sir Etienne returned to his fief.”
“It mentions his death some twenty years later, in his home,” Egil concluded.
“Incredible,” Inghard told them with a smile. “Somehow, it feels good to know that he found a peaceful life afterwards.”
A chamber door opened slowly on creaking hinges. “Do we have a visitor?” Quill asked with an unsteady voice as he appeared in the hall.
“Master Quill,” Inghard greeted him along with a bow.
“My prince,” the elderly man smiled, bowing slightly in turn and hiding his hands inside the sleeves of his robe. “A pleasure to have you here.”
“I came for another book. Something similar to the story of Sir Etienne,” Inghard requested.
Quill gave a nod. “I believe we can handle that.” He made as if to move, but changed his mind and stopped. “Egil,” he spoke with a quiet voice, “the shelf just behind you should have an excellent account of King Erhard’s war against the outlanders. The Field of Blue, I believe the title is.”
Egil turned and his eyes ran over the spines until he grabbed a book. “Here we are,” he mumbled, handing it to Inghard.
“Thanks,” the prince replied, taking hold of it with both hands.
“It is your library,” Quill reminded him with a gentle smile. “I am only happy its owner has such interest in it.”
“How could I not?” Inghard sent the old scribe a beaming smile of his own. “I will be back as soon as I am finished.” The prince nodded briefly to them all and left.
“Did the whiterobes send us that book?” Quill asked.
“I collected it myself today,” Egil told him.
“Good, good. I will get started soon,” the librarian mumbled. “Our histories are incomplete without it. I will begin work soon,” he reiterated, turning around to face his chamber door. One of his hands extended from to grab the edge with bent fingers that could not stretch out; with a slightly pained expression, Quill pulled the door open, passed through it, and closed it behind him.
Kate sent Egil a concerned look. “He’ll be fine,” Egil claimed, barely pronouncing the words properly. “I better get on with it.” He returned to the scriptorium, picking up his feather pen and resuming his work.
Every member of Theodoric’s court had departed from Middanhal, leaving his extensive quarters at the Citadel empty. Arndis had swiftly convinced the steward to let her take over along with Eleanor, letting the two women and their servants make use of the bigger rooms. This meant that while Theodwyn was gone, many ladies of the court still gathered in the same parlour with Arndis as the new centre of attention.
“I am told you had something of interest to tell us?” Arndis spoke with encouragement, directed at one of the young women present. They sat on couches arranged around a small table. None of those present belonged to any of the highest nobility, but several had relations among the margraves or even the landgraves.
“My father said that Lady Gunhild should arrive any day now,” the young woman replied nervously, looking around at the expectant faces.
“I imagine Lord Marcaster is not mistaken in such cases,” Arndis granted.
“Never,” insisted the daughter of the aforementioned nobleman. “One of his thanes was delivering a message to Hardburg and left around the same time as the lady and her retinue. He hastened ahead to bring my father the reply.”
“What message did your father send?”
“Oh, I do not – he does not share such with me,” the woman admitted, biting her lip.
“Of course not,” Arndis spoke soothingly, and Eleanor, seated next to the girl, caressed her arm. “You are welcome in our midst regardless.” With a relieved expression, the girl was on the verge of speaking, but Arndis continued before she could. “It will soon be time for the evening meal. I imagine you all wish to attend to yourselves beforehand,” she suggested.
“Of course,” several of the young women agreed, and with various farewells and promises to sit together during supper, they left.
Once alone, Arndis and Eleanor sat down again. “What do you think Lady Gunhild’s arrival means?” asked the latter.
“If Lady Alexandra’s chambermaid can be trusted, and I will grant you that is doubtful,” Arndis contemplated, “I surmise that Lord Konstans’ overtures to Lady Hardling have been heard, and she is willing to see her daughter wed to the House of Vale. I am guessing that was the reason for Lord Marcaster’s messenger to Hardburg. The poor man must have deduced the same as us and scrambled to salvage his alliance with House Hardling.”
“Do you think he will have any luck doing that?”
“I cannot see that happening,” Arndis revealed with a casual voice. “With the loss of two sons, House Hardling will be looking for the strongest alliance they can, which is Vale.”
“Poor woman,” Eleanor commented. “I cannot imagine what losing two sons in such a short span of time must feel like.”
“She must be distraught, no doubt,” Arndis granted, “but war rages. Many mothers have lost sons, and many more will before this is over.”
“Have you heard from Sir William?”
“Not yet, but I do not think he has reached the siege camp yet. Add to that, it will take a letter weeks to travel back,” Eleanor pointed out.
“Part of me thinks he might be safer there than here.”
“He is a strong warrior, yet I worry nonetheless. He was reluctant to admit it, but he received a gruesome wound during the battle for Tothmor,” Eleanor confessed. “It turned out to be the cause of why he was absent at the battle of Polisals.”
“Hopefully, the fighting will be at an end soon. Once the siege of Lakon is won, all of Hæthiod should be freed,” Arndis remarked. She hesitated before continuing. “Have you considered returning to Hæthiod?”
Eleanor shook her head. “I have no family or friends there. Middanhal is my home.”
“I am glad. Let us get ready for supper,” Arndis suggested. The women parted, each to her room.
Bloodied and with harried looks, the rearguard of the Red Hawks marched through the northern gate of Middanhal. They were the last troops to retreat; with their entry to the city, northern Adalrik had effectively been abandoned to Isarn. As they passed through the gatehouse, some of them looked back upon the city defences, noticing an unfamiliar sight. Along with Order soldiers, Red Hawks guarded the gate and the walls; with the threat of an assault upon Middanhal far more likely than before, Captain Theobald had relented and allowed the mercenaries to bolster the garrison upon the fortifications. The general populace, having no reason to inspect the defenders upon the northern walls, had taken no notice of this; it was obvious to the soldiers, on the other hand, and the implications lay heavily upon them.
“How many do you think we’ve lost?” asked Jorund. The Dwarf’s customary conviviality was replaced by concern.
“I don’t know,” Gawad replied with a tired voice. “Ask the quartermaster.”
“It’s probably less than I imagine. It’s always less,” Jorund considered.
“Probably.” They marched along the Citadel walls on the wide Arnsweg; Order soldiers peered over the crenellations to look at them. At least for now, the Hawks had not been added to the outer fortifications of the Citadel.
“It’s not like we lost a battle. Other than the first one,” Jorund yapped on. “It was just skirmishes and harassment.” His companion did not reply. “What do you think?”
“Our situation, the company, all of it.”
Gawad sighed. “I haven’t slept properly in a week, Jorund. The only thing I think about right now is a bed inside these walls, where I assume the chance of nightly raids is none. Ask me again in ten hours, preferably after you’ve given me a tankard full of ale, and not the cheap kind that you use when you want to be disgustingly drunk.”
Jorund sent him a stare. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken all day.”
“And these are the last I’ll speak before sleep,” Gawad declared. True to his word, the Hawk did not utter anything else but found the nearest bed in the barracks, falling into deep slumber immediately.
Konstans was busy at his desk when the door burst open and his brother strode through. “Yes, Valerian?” the dragonlord asked calmly.
“I have just been informed in full by the captain of the Hawks,” the lord protector declared; his voice revealed a turmoil of emotions. “He told me that you commanded him to retreat! Abandon the siege and any pretence of fighting Isarn.”
“That is correct.” Konstans dipped his quill into ink and continued writing.
“I never gave any such order!”
“No, I did. You just said so yourself,” Konstans explained patiently.
“The Hawks are paid with my gold! I give them orders! I told them to take Castle Grenwold and continue onwards. Bring an end to this war. Each week it drags on, they drain my coffers,” Valerian complained.
“You can be rich, or you can be alive,” Konstans declared dryly. “I assume you do not need much time to decide which you prefer.”
“How does this help us? We are cowering behind our walls. How can the Adalthing respect us when we cannot stop this rebellion?” the jarl asked. “How can you sit so calmly behind that table while our enemy marches against us?”
Konstans threw the quill down in an angry gesture, breaking the tip. “Are you expecting me to stride out of the gate and take up the fight against Isarn? Throw myself into the fray?”
“No,” Valerian replied, taken aback. “But you ordered a retreat. We look like we are losing.”
“Brother, it is painfully obvious we do not possess any commander of Athelstan’s mettle. If we are to meet Isarn’s army, we need more than twice the men he has,” the dragonlord specified.
“I suppose we can scrape that together if I raise more levies,” Valerian considered hesitantly.
“Not those peasants,” Konstans spoke with disdain, picking up his feather pen and inspecting it. “I am writing a request to the Silver Spears. If they set sail as soon as they receive this, they should arrive within two months.”
“Another mercenary company?” Valerian asked incredulously.
“We need professional troops,” his brother stated.
“I am already being bled dry by the Hawks,” the jarl moaned. “The royal treasury will have to pay. Or else I will have nothing left!”
Konstans took a deep breath. “Maybe that is acceptable. But keep it quiet. The Adalthing will not be pleased if we are spending the kingdom’s gold on mercenaries.” From a drawer, he took out another feather pen and resumed writing.
“I am not one to spread such knowledge,” Valerian rebuked him, offended.
“Yet Lord Marcaster sent a messenger to Hardburg, hoping to save his alliance with Hardling. There was no reason for him to do so, unless he knew that we had made an offer of marriage between Gunhild and Konstantine,” Konstans pointed out with a sharp voice, looking up momentarily at his brother.
“I did not tell anyone except perhaps my wife,” Valerian mumbled. “She would not reveal anything I shared in confidence, I am certain.”
“Of course not.” Konstans remarked, finishing his letter. “If we are done here, you could make yourself useful and approach Ingmond. He is not contributing anything. Given Isarn is responsible for his family’s death, you would think he would put effort into seeing this rebellion crushed.”
“I will speak with him,” Valerian promised, retreating from the room.