More than a week of restitution followed after the nightly assault. The highlanders rested, tended to their injuries, and distributed the spoils of the battle among Brand’s adjutants. Sharp watch was kept throughout the surrounding woods, but there were no further signs of the Isarn army; it had retreated beyond Theodstan to lick its wounds. Brand personally went with the scouts, examining traces of the enemy along with the land itself, deepening his understanding of the terrain as he had been taught to do by Athelstan years ago. When he went back to camp, he was prepared to give battle in this area to any army, whether Isarn or Vale.
Returning to the clearing, it was immediately obvious that something was wrong. Several of his lieutenants came running towards him, clearly agitated. Brand dismounted from one of the few horses available to the ragged army, sending them all a concerned look. “What is amiss?”
The warriors looked at each other. “You tell him, Gwen, you’re the one who found out.”
The woman cleared her throat; her hands were nervously playing with the rings on her Nordsteel chain shirt. “The highlanders are deserting.”
“What?” Alarm flooded Brand’s face.
“A rumour is spreading, or maybe it’s true,” Gwen began to explain. “The rí ruirech has send word to remind us that he alone may lead the tuatha to war. Anyone who follows you is in breach of the law of the high lands. Any who does not immediately return will forfeit their land and livestock.”
As Gwen spoke, the colour faded from Brand until he looked sickly. “How many have left?”
“Hundreds and hundreds more. It started yesterday. Even now, people are packing,” Alaric elaborated.
Brand hastened into camp with a frantic expression; everything around him confirmed the news. Many tents were gone, and more were being pulled down; the foraged food along with what Theodoric had sent as a gesture was being stuffed into sacks. “Stop!” Brand yelled. Those nearby glanced at him, but none reacted otherwise.
“Captain,” Geberic spoke quietly as he approached, “it’s no use. We’ve been trying to convince them since yesterday to at least wait until you returned. They won’t listen.”
“They can’t risk having their farms taken,” Gwen added. “Their families will starve come winter.”
“You can’t abandon us!” Brand exclaimed desperately. “We have only just begun!” The highlanders paid him no heed.
They continued to leave throughout the day.
When morning came, the sun shone on a near empty clearing. Fast was broken mostly in silence. Brand did not eat but gazed at those who remained. All the men who had followed him into exile from Adalrik were still present as were a handful of highlanders; most of them were either whiterobes or people from Clan Lachlann. He did not speak while the meal lasted. Many sent him silent looks, but all others were quiet as well. Finally, Brand rose.
“Geberic, Glaukos, Matthew, Nicholas, and Quentin,” he called out. “And Troy,” he added. As he named them, they raised their eyes at the captain, and the remainder of those present followed suit. “You followed me into exile from Adalrik. Do you follow me now?”
“Aye, milord,” Geberic confirmed. The others nodded and voiced their agreement.
“Alaric, you and your fellow thanes. Do you follow me still?”
“Yes, milord,” they all hastened to say.
“Brother Caradoc. You and your fellow priests choose to remain?”
“We serve our god by being here. What does the command of a king matter to us?” smiled the whiterobe.
“Lord Doran. You and those of your túath are still here?”
“Yes, my lord. We assume my father will not be punishing anyone from Lachlann as long as I am here,” the young man grinned.
“Any chickens I had left have long since been pilfered anyway,” Gwen remarked with a shrug. “You’re our clansman.”
“Aye!” The remaining highlanders shouted in unison.
Brand gave a smile that seemed born of both mirth and sorrow. “In that case, I will not abandon hope.” He glanced around. “But we cannot remain here in this open position. We need walls around us, should Isarn return. Gather anything worth bringing along. We go to Cragstan today.” The warriors set to work immediately, and once the camp had been scoured, they began their march towards the city. All in all, they numbered around fifty.
The city guards spotted them from a distance, alerting the keep. Thus, when Brand and his people entered the courtyard, Theodoric stood waiting for them. “I heard,” the jarl muttered with a low voice. “Are these all that remain?”
“They are,” Brand replied, turning to look back at them. “Few in number, but hearts stronger than a thousand men.”
“I would rather have the thousand men,” Theodoric remarked. “At least this few will not be a burden to feed. You may stay at the Crag until you decide what to do next. Should Isenhart march against me, I will have use of you and your warriors.”
“Of course,” Brand nodded.
“Do not expect me to march against him or Vale, for that matter,” the jarl continued; he spoke quietly that only Brand might hear. “My army alone is no match for either of them. I warned you of this.”
“You did,” Brand acknowledged. “I will not demand that you cast yourself against stronger foes. But a respite behind your walls will be welcome. I need to consider my next move.”
“As do I,” Theodoric admitted. “I stand isolated. Before, I assumed Isarn and Vale would be too busy fighting each other to spare me a second thought, but now… Isenhart is a vengeful man.”
“For what it is worth, I am grieved at what I have cost you,” Brand told the jarl. “I have done you wrong.”
Theodoric sent him a surprised look. “Words I did not expect. Yet I will not hold you to blame,” he admitted reluctantly. “I should have stood by your side, not only at the last Adalthing but also the year before. Much would have been different.”
“Enough of such speech,” Brand declared with an encouraging voice. “We will get lost, dwelling on the past. Tomorrow is another day.”
Theodoric seemed disinclined to agree, but he spoke no reply; he merely gestured for Brand and his people to enter the keep itself.
Several days passed without notable events when one fine morning, Nicholas and Quentin ventured just beyond the city gate to practice their archery. Jesting with some of the guards that left the gatehouse to watch their craft, it took a while before any noticed a retinue of horsemen moving swiftly along the Kingsroad; soon, they rode up the hill upon which the city lay, coming close enough that their colours could be identified. Their cloaks were red, showing them as servants to a jarl; the other hue upon their surcoats was gold.
No less than twenty-one men rode into Cragstan, of whom twenty were thanes to Jarl Vale. As the company entered the courtyard of the keep, they all dismounted, and stable hands hurried to take care of the exhausted mounts. Only then could the steward of the keep identify who rode at the head of this column.
“Lord Konstans,” he exclaimed with a stutter.
“Where is your master? I seek an audience with him at once,” declared the dragonlord of Adalrik.
“Of course, milord,” the steward managed to reply, bowing deeply.
An hour later, Theodoric left his study with Konstans still inside. The jarl walked down the corridor and entered another room where Brand sat waiting. “What does he want?”
“He has heard of Isenhart’s failed attack,” Theodoric explained. “He assumes, quite rightly, that there is now outright enmity between me and Isarn. He offers the protection of his forces, should Isenhart attack again, in exchange for my aid.”
Brand gave a slow nod. “I suppose it was inevitable. You have made an enemy of one side, forcing you to join the other. At least that is how he reasons.”
“He is right,” Theodoric admitted. “Isenhart sees me as a threat, and I have too few men to resist him in the long run. Taking Cragstan may be too costly for him, but he can freely ravage and plunder my lands. Unless I have a strong ally to deter him.” The last sentence was spoken cautiously.
“I would be hesitant to trust Lord Konstans,” Brand warned him. “You saw his power and ruthless ability to use it at the Adalthing just a few months ago. From nothing, he conjured up accusations against me and evidence to match. I went from commander of the Order’s armies to a prisoner slated for execution, all upon his word.”
“Believe me,” Theodoric impressed upon him, “I know fully the extent to which Konstans may manipulate events. When he showed up here, I was half-tempted to have him thrown in chains.”
“I would not stop you,” Brand remarked.
“But he has willingly walked into the dragon’s den because he knows I cannot hurt him. I already have Isarn against me. If I make Vale my enemy as well, all of Theodstan will pay a heavy price.” The nobleman swallowed, glancing at Brand. “My ancestors were jarls when yours were kings, Lord Adalbrand. I will not be the last of my line.”
“Are you prepared to let your soldiers die in service to Vale?” Brand asked sharply.
“Surprisingly, he does not demand that. Vale intends to use mercenaries to win this war. Quite right,” Theodoric granted. “Peasant levies will not defeat Athelstan.”
“I could,” Brand proclaimed fiercely, “as I already have.”
The jarl raised a hand in a disarming gesture. “I am aware. That does not mean I can refuse Vale. He asks only for provisions and fifteen crowns a year while this war continues,” he explained. “In return, my people may remain home, and Vale’s mercenaries will defend my jarldom should it be necessary.”
“How can you trust Vale would risk his army? If Isarn invades, what guarantee do you have that your gold has bought anything but empty promises?”
“If Isarn plunders Theodstan, he will take the very supplies that are promised to Vale. Furthermore,” Theodoric continued, “I will not pay the gold until next year. Vale is desperate for allies,” the jarl considered. “His offer is reasonable by any means.” He took a deep breath. “I cannot say no to this.”
Brand sat silent for a while. “You have a duty as a jarl to protect your jarldom. If I have not overstepped the bonds of any friendship that may rest between us, I would only ask one last request of you.”
Brand took a deep breath. “Set a final condition. Lord Konstans must repeal the doom upon me and see me reinstated as a knight.”
Theodoric frowned. “That is unusual to demand.”
“It is my last hope. I am an outlaw, my lord jarl, exiled from the land that I have fought to protect. At least as a knight, I will have honour and dignity, not to mention purpose.”
The jarl nodded slowly. “I will make this demand on your behalf. But Konstans is shrewd. He is bound to realise this means there is a bond between us. Perhaps he will even guess that you are in this very castle, in this very hour.”
“Then let us not pretend. I will go with you and state my case to him directly,” Brand suggested.
“That is a bold move.”
“Victory is oft won by boldness alone. If hiding my presence is impossible, let us not attempt it.”
Theodoric’s face was warped in thought for a moment. “Very well. Come with me.”
As the door to the jarl’s study opened, Konstans gave it an idle look; when he saw Brand walk through it, he rose to his feet with an astonished expression. “You!”
“Lord Konstans,” Brand greeted him with curt politeness.
“There is an addition to our negotiations,” Theodoric pointed out.
“You harbour an outlaw, my lord jarl,” the dragonlord stated, staring at Theodoric.
“That is in itself not a crime. While Lord Adalbrand is in Theodstan, he is under my protection.”
“As you wish,” Konstans conceded. “How does this affect our agreement?”
“I have a final condition,” Theodoric explained. “You must rescind the death sentence hanging over Lord Adalbrand and see him reinstated as a knight of the Order.”
Konstans sent Brand a discerning look, eventually sitting down. “That is no small request.”
“Nor is it unjust,” interjected Brand. “I led the Order to numerous victories. I have earned my golden spurs.”
Theodoric raised a hand in a gesture to calm Brand, but Konstans did not seem perturbed. “I will be forthright with you. I have no interest in seeing you on the scaffold in Middanhal.”
Both the other men in the room looked at him in surprise. “That is not the impression I received last we met.”
“Executing dragonborns is not very popular. We all saw how Captain Berimund reacted,” Konstans stated dryly. “Besides, with the death of both princes Hardmar and Gerhard, the public killing of another atheling will only cause further instability in the realm. I do not seek your death, Lord Adalbrand.”
“Do you accept my condition, in that case?” asked Theodoric.
Konstans shook his head. “It is not that simple. Your guilt was decided by the Adalthing,” he spoke, addressing Brand. “A king may show clemency, but I am only the dragonlord. The Adalthing would accuse me of abusing my power if I disregarded its verdict and did as I pleased.”
Brand stared straight at him. “Given that they dance to your tune, I find that hard to believe.”
Theodoric cleared his throat, looking at Brand, but Konstans did not seem to take offence. “I am getting restless looking at you two standing up,” the dragonlord claimed. He gestured towards the empty chairs. Hesitantly, the other men in the room sat down. “Better,” Konstans smiled. “Here is my suggestion. The Adalthing is only weeks away. You may present your case, asking for your crimes to be forgiven.”
“I have committed no crime!” Brand exclaimed, gripping the arm rests of his chair tightly. “I deserve to have my honour restored in full, not to beg for mercy!”
“It does not matter what you deserve, Lord Adalbrand,” Konstans told him calmly. “There would have to be a new trial against you, but there would be no new evidence or witnesses to bring forward.”
“You could be a witness,” Brand argued. “Say you were wrong and that I am innocent.”
“And damage my own prestige irreparably? Let us remember who is asking whom for a favour,” Konstans spoke while raising a finger. “You have greater need of us, Jarl Theodoric, than we have of you. I am already overlooking that you are harbouring a convicted traitor against the Crown. I am willing to pledge my brother’s support in the Adalthing to have your guilt forgiven, Lord Adalbrand, and that is as far as I will go.”
“That seems a vague pledge,” Brand retorted.
“Jarl Ingmond hates you, Lord Adalbrand, which is entirely your own doing. Many of the landgraves may feel the same. With my brother’s margraves and Jarl Theodoric’s, you have most of the support you need in the Adalthing. But I will not make promises,” Konstans specified. “You have a cunning ally,” he continued, nodding towards Theodoric. “If you cannot gain the remaining ten votes, do not blame me for the animosity that you have inspired in the Adalthing.”
“Adalbrand,” Theodoric spoke quietly, “he has a point. You should remain here at Cragstan in safety. I will speak to the Adalthing on your behalf and see your spurs restored.”
“I am to cower like a wolf trapped in its den while my fate is decided by other men?” Brand asked angrily, standing up.
Konstans gazed up at him. “Again, I remind you of your negotiating position. You have nothing to offer in return. I do this simply as a gesture of good will towards the jarl.” He nodded towards Theodoric.
“A fine gesture that holds no real guarantees,” Brand almost sneered. “Give me another guarantee, and I will acquiesce.”
“Adalbrand,” Theodoric spoke in warning.
“I admit, your audacity amuses as much as it astounds me,” Konstans spoke. “Go on.”
“I want your written guarantee, signed and sealed as dragonlord, that I will be allowed to depart Adalrik in peace to seek my fortunes elsewhere. Regardless of whether the Adalthing restores me to my knighthood or not.”
“Adalbrand, you ask too much,” the jarl protested, standing up to stare Brand directly into his face.
“If Lord Konstans truly does not seek my head, it is of no consequence to promise,” Brand responded sharply, meeting Theodoric’s gaze.
“The landfrid will hold sway soon,” Konstans mentioned, looking up at the other two men. “Outlaw or not, as atheling you will be protected until the Adalthing ends.”
“After which you will have free reins to hunt me down,” Brand retorted. “I want safe passage out of Adalrik after the Adalthing ends. Or,” he added slowly, “I will seek out Jarl Isarn and offer him my services. I will cross the Weolcans again if I must, bringing steel and death to all of Vale!”
“Adalbrand!” Theodoric yelled sharply.
Konstans sat silent, staring at Brand. “Very well,” he finally agreed. “I have my seal with me to sign the treaty with the jarl. It is no matter to write a guarantee that you may depart this realm unharmed. But,” he added, standing up, “any such promise will not protect you in the event of your return to Adalrik. Nor will your status as dragonborn.”
“Furthermore,” Konstans continued, looking at Theodoric. “It will be twenty crowns a year that you will pay, not fifteen. All that you have demanded of me, including the lack of respect I have been shown in this room, has a price.”
The jarl took a deep breath. “Agreed.” Even as he spoke, he looked upon Brand with indignation.
Konstans broke into a smile. “Excellent. Swift negotiations are always preferable to me. If you have ink and parchment brought, we can have it all written, signed, and sealed immediately. The sooner I can return to Middanhal, the better. I must prepare for the upcoming Adalthing. As must you, I surmise.”
Within the hour, Konstans and his thanes left Cragstan. In his possession, he carried a treaty between Vale and Theodstan, stating the terms of their alliance until the end of Isarn’s rebellion. Behind him, he left a written promise that Adalbrand of House Arnling would have safe passage to leave Adalrik throughout the summer of the year one thousand ninety-eight.