Even war could not subdue the festivities of summer solstice; Middanhal was packed with people. In the days preceding, hefty bartering and bribing had taken place among the Red Hawks between those desperate to be off guard duty and those eager to profit on the former. His purse considerably lighter, Jorund was among the Hawks leaving the Citadel on the morning of Summer Day. He was not wearing his surcoat with its red hawk nor weapons or chain shirt, but a fine cotton tunic instead underneath a light cloak.
Leaving the southern courtyard, he moved west to reach the quarter squeezed in between the Citadel and the mountain of Valmark. Smithies and workshops lay here for the most part, many of them supplying the Order with equipment. The neighbourhood had another peculiarity; most of its residents were Dwarves. At a glance, they might easily be mistaken for Men; only the gold or silver ring that all of them wore in one ear set them apart.
As Jorund moved among them, he was greeted happily by most of the residents, whether Dwarves or Men; today was a day of feast for all. He returned their well-wishes fondly, passing through the main streets until he reached his destination.
It was the largest house in the neighbourhood and resembled a guildhall in structure and size. It had the distinction of being the only building owned by Dwarves in Middanhal; they were otherwise forbidden from owning property, but royal dispensation had been obtained in this particular case. Above the big door were carved the runes that few but Dwarves still used as letters; they proclaimed this the dwelling of the dvalinn. Walking up the stairs, Jorund knocked on the door.
A Dwarf opened. “What do you want?”
“Summer’s greeting to you on this day, Brother,” Jorund spoke politely.
“Summer’s greetings,” the servant replied.
“I am Jorund of Dvaros,” he explained. “I have no kin in Middanhal to celebrate the solstice with, and so I have come seeking the hospitality of the dvalinn.”
The other Dwarf sent him a measuring look, from his cotton tunic to the golden ring in his ear. “Step inside, and we’ll have a look at you,” the servant finally said, stepping back to allow Jorund entry. “Let’s see them, then.”
Jorund unclasped his cloak, let it fall to the floor, and pulled off his tunic afterwards. His bare chest was revealed to contain numerous runes drawn into the skin, which the servant quickly examined, tracing his finger over the lines. “Very well, Jorund of Dvaros, son of Hákon, born to Gunna, I will announce you to the dvalinn. Wait here.”
Jorund gave a nod and put his tunic back on as the servant left. Picking up his cloak and folding it, he spent some time looking at the parlour. It was richly decorated with carvings and ornaments everywhere, much in the style of the temples to Hamaring. Runes were interspersed with figures, both telling the stories of dvalinns past.
“He will see you now,” the servant declared, interrupting Jorund’s ruminations. The latter followed the former from the parlour, passing into the main hall of the building.
It had one long table with numerous chairs; servants were flitting about, preparing for the feast. In the far end stood a few Dwarves that were not occupied with this task; their rich clothing also distinguished them. The doorman approached them with Jorund in tow.
“Master,” he spoke, gaining the attention of the others. “This is Jorund of Dvaros, come to seek your hospitality.”
The dvalinn glanced at him. “Your name has been confirmed, I am told. Master Jorund, welcome to my hall.”
When he was addressed, Jorund made a deep bow. “My lord dvalinn,” he spoke in greeting. “I am honoured to stand in your presence.”
“Dvaros is far from here, but you are welcome among your kind in Middanhal,” spoke the lord of the hall.
“My thanks,” Jorund replied. “I should not wish to spend this celebration apart from my brethren.”
Another Dwarf standing by the dvalinn sent Jorund an inspecting look. “What brings you here? It is unusual to see a Dwarf arrive without having family or friends in the city.”
The answer came with slight hesitation. “I serve in the company of Red Hawks. I have spent the last years in the lands surrounding the Mydlonde Sea.”
A superior look came over the dvalinn’s advisor. “You have sold your service, in other words.”
“I have seen the world,” Jorund retorted, “experienced wonders and even brought a few of them with me back. Such as this.” From a pocket, he withdrew a small bundle. Unwrapping it, he revealed a yellow gemstone inside. “This is a topaz. It is rare in the Realms, even in the South, and they jealously guard the secret of its origin. I was told there is an island in a sea far from here, which is the only source of it.” Jorund extended the gem with a small bow. “A token of my respect, my lord dvalinn.”
The lord accepted the precious stone with one hand, stroking his finely combed beard with the other. “Your respect is deep-felt, Master Jorund. Be welcome tonight at my table.”
The Hawk gave a final bow. “My thanks, my lord dvalinn. I shall see you tonight.”
On solstice day, there was no toll for entering the city. Many took advantage of this, and heavy traffic into Middanhal was always to be expected. Even so, the arrival of Brand and his retinue drew attention. Several of the Order soldiers manning the northern gate recognised him; some even saluted him. None attempted to hinder his passage; the landfrid was in effect, protecting every member of the Adalthing. It did not necessarily extend to those in his following, though, and the former kingthanes now sworn to his service hid their faces under hoods; none of them were interested in being recognised.
Walking east from the gate, they reached the nobles’ quarter in Middanhal, passing magnificent and opulent mansions. At length, they reached the family home of House Arnling. The gate was open; inside, the place was bustling with activity by men in green surcoats, unloading crates from carts.
Looking around in disbelief, Brand moved forward until he was noticed. “Outsiders not allowed,” a brusque Red Hawk shouted at them. “Get out of here!”
Brand stared him down. “You are standing in my house,” he proclaimed. “You will remove yourself, good master, or be forcibly removed.”
The Hawks began clustering around their comrade while Brand’s men similarly flanked around their captain. “You’re the condemned prisoner who fled,” one of them guessed. “And stupid enough to come back.” Several of them hefted their weapons ready.
“I am under the protection of the landfrid,” Brand declared. “That means to attack me until the Adalthing has convened is to attack the Adalthing itself. You will all hang if you so much as spill one drop of my blood.”
“You’re trying to evict us from our quarters,” a Hawk pointed out. “We’re just defending ourselves, as is our right.”
“You’re willing to fight rather than vacate my home?” Brand questioned.
“I don’t think you have more numbers than us,” someone claimed. “You want us to leave, you make us.”
“Consider this. There are many places in the city where you might quarter. But this is my only home,” the young nobleman declared. “I was born in this house, as was my father before me. I have far more reason to fight for this place than any of you.” Behind him, his thanes stood ready; the whiterobes held their weapons with a grin.
“Enough.” A Hawk appeared from the back. “This isn’t worth spilling blood over. We’ll get assigned new quarters. Pack up your things and leave.”
“We just finished unloading half the carts,” someone complained.
“Quiet,” the same Hawk commanded. “Tell your men to be at ease,” he requested of Brand. “Solstice is no day for fighting.”
“I will agree to that.” Brand gestured to his warriors, who relaxed and put their weapons away. Meanwhile, the Hawks began to gather their belongings.
“Too bad. I was curious what kind of fight these red birds put up,” Caradoc remarked prosaically.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Find my sister at the Citadel. Escort her here when she is ready to leave,” Brand instructed him.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Alaric, take your men and watch the Hawks as they leave. Make sure they leave behind anything that is not theirs.”
“If I recall, one of your brothers is an apt cook.”
“True, more than one of them have a gift in that regard.”
“Good. See what food can be gathered. Today is solstice, and we should celebrate as best we can.”
Kate entered the tower, carrying an assortment of cakes and fruits. “I just got what I could find,” she told Egil.
“That’s fine. Master Quill will enjoy any of that,” the apprentice replied.
“Are you sure? He doesn’t seem to enjoy anything these days.”
“He always likes solstice,” Egil declared firmly. He went over and knocked on Quill’s chamber door. “Master? The tournament will begin soon. Kate and I were thinking we should go watch it together.” There was no reply. After knocking again, he opened the door to find Quill lying on his bed.
“I am sorry, Egil,” the scribe said. “I do not feel well.”
“We have oatcakes,” his apprentice mentioned. “Some cherries too, and raspberries.”
“That sounds delightful,” Quill admitted, taking a deep breath. “But I think the crowds will be a bit too much for me.”
Kate appeared in the doorframe. “We could just stay here. Food tastes the same whether we eat it here or there.”
“That’s a good idea,” Egil added. “We’ll just eat over by the table.”
Quill looked at them both. Finally, he got up. “I suppose that’s fine with me.”
They moved to sit at the table, and Kate arranged the food she had brought with her from the kitchen. “Just take anything you would like, master,” Kate told him.
Egil cleared his throat. “Kate, didn’t you tell me you wanted to start reading this book?” He grabbed one that lay on the table and held it towards her.
“Do not touch the books if you are eating,” Quill admonished them.
“I didn’t –” Kate cut her sentence short as she caught Egil’s facial expressions, encouraging her. “Right.” She got up and moved away from the food on the table, opening on the first page. Taking a deep breath, she began to read aloud.
With Kate’s attention on the book and Egil’s attention on her, Quill slowly reached out with bent fingers to pick up a berry. His hold on it shook a little, but neither of the children seemed to notice him; with a quick motion, he managed to reach his mouth with his fingers, feeding himself. With a satisfied expression, though he kept his eyes away from Quill, Egil took hold of an oatcake and began eating.
At the Arnling estate, it took the Hawks more than an hour to clear out. Brand’s men set to work as soon as they could, making the house ready for a celebration. It turned out that Henry, the old steward, was still present; the Hawks had kept him to act as their servant. Now, he was allowed to return to his former role if only for a short while. Directing their efforts, Henry had the dining hall cleaned and prepared for guests.
It was this sight that met Arndis when she arrived at her home, accompanied by Eleanor, their handmaidens, and Glaukos. “I will find the captain,” the latter promised, disappearing deeper into the house.
“I have never been to your house,” Eleanor remarked. “I scarcely knew you had one.”
“I lived here all my life until last year when we came to court,” Arndis related.
“Did you never consider leaving the Citadel and come back here? There must have been times that you felt unsafe in the castle, I imagine.”
“I suppose,” Arndis contemplated. “But the thought never entered my mind.” She let her glance move over the entrance hall. “This place was slowly suffocating me. I will never live under such confining circumstances again.”
“Arndis!” exclaimed a voice. As she recognised its owner, the lady broke into a smile. Soon after, she was embraced tightly by powerful arms.
“I am so happy to see you,” she whispered to her brother.
“No more than I am upon seeing you,” Brand claimed. He let the embrace linger before finally pulling back. “And you do not come alone.”
“You remember my friend, Eleanor.”
“Of course.” Brand gave a small bow.
“Lord Adalbrand.” She returned his courtesy.
“I believe I told you to call me Brand.” He smiled before gesturing to their handmaidens. “Be at ease. Your mistresses are well attended. Go as you please and enjoy the evening.” They did as he bade them, one with a shy smile and the other with a bashful face. Brand meanwhile took Arndis and Eleanor under one arm each. “Come! There are some who will be happy to see you, and others I am anxious you should meet.”
“Brother, what of everything that has transpired? How did you escape Middanhal, and where have you been all these weeks? How come you have returned?” Arndis enquired with an anxious voice.
Brand laughed. “All in good time. There will be occasion to tell you everything tonight. We shall have a feast with a meal fit for my band of heroes. Troy shall play his songs, and I suspect the whiterobes will be making merriment as well.”
“Whiterobes?” questioned Eleanor. “Lord Adalbrand, what is this band you travel with?”
“You shall see,” he smiled. “First, Sister, you should meet Gwen.” As he called her name, the highlander turned and approached them.
“This is her, I reckon,” Gwen uttered.
“It is. Arndis, this is Gwen, our kinswoman from Mother’s clan,” Brand introduced her.
They gazed at each other. Arndis was dressed exquisitely with a tasteful selection of jewellery to emphasise her natural beauty; Gwen was wearing armour, her sword hung by her side, and her hair was cut sensibly short.
Arndis broke into a smile. “What a lovely surprise!” she exclaimed. She reached out to clasp Gwen’s hands. “I had no idea any of Mother’s family remained. We wrote to Heohlond but received only disheartening news.”
“I was away,” Gwen mumbled, looking down to see Arndis’ slender hands grasp her own. “Now I’ve come here instead.”
“Splendid idea,” Arndis smiled. “You must sit with us and tell us everything about Mother’s family while we eat.”
“If you wish,” Gwen muttered.
“Tonight will be the best solstice celebration this house has known,” Brand declared. His men yelled their agreement from the different rooms of the building.
It was late afternoon when Jorund returned to the dvalinn’s hall. He was dressed as before, though he had added silver rings to his hair, keeping it neat. Pulled back in a tight ponytail, his missing left ear was starkly visible. It drew some stares, but as most he met were Dwarves, all viewed him with sympathy; stories of brigands stealing earrings from Dwarves were a common way for mothers to make their children behave.
The doorman let Jorund in without a word, taking his cloak and beckoning for him to enter and join the other Dwarves already busy in conversation. The feast hall itself was ready; banners depicting the many houses of the Dwarves hung on all the walls. Jorund stepped up to one that showed an axe wreathed in flames.
“House Fireaxe,” spoke the dvalinn, who had stepped up to stand next to Jorund.
“My lord dvalinn.” Jorund greeted him with a small bow.
“Your house?” asked the lord, nodding towards the banner.
“Indeed. Though I am not of the dvalinn’s lineage if that was what you meant,” Jorund clarified.
“It does not matter. Tonight, we are all one house,” the dvalinn declared graciously. “Come, take your seat by my side, and tell us of our kindred in Dvaros.”
Jorund did as bid, and soon after, food and drink were served in copious amounts. Seated at the dvalinn’s right hand, the newcomer had a place of honour; opposite him at the dvalinn’s left hand sat the latter’s advisor. “What was your name, stranger?” asked the dvalinn’s counsellor.
“Jorund of Dvaros, at the service of your house. To whom do I speak?”
“I am Ragni, born in Middanhal, where I have lived all my life,” he spoke pointedly. “I count the first dvalinn of House Starkstone among my ancestors.” He gestured towards the banner that hung behind the present dvalinn’s chair, depicting a tower. “But you have not only left Dvaros,” Ragni continued. “You have ventured far and abroad.” His words were not spoken in compliment.
“Dvaros is a great city,” Jorund replied, pouring leek soup into his bowl. “Especially for any of our people with a hankering towards stonework. But as with anywhere else, complacency lurks on its streets, sinking its hooks into any Dwarf. I am but forty years old, yet I have more deeds to my name than any of my kinsmen who remained behind.”
“Deeds performed for the sake of Men,” Ragni added with a scoff.
“Tonight, we will sing,” Jorund began to speak. “All over the Realms, our people will leave their home, singing of what was lost and what we hope to regain.” He stared at the counsellor. “Staying indoors means you will miss the celebration.”
“Peace,” declared the dvalinn, who hitherto had been helping himself to the many courses. “Eat, my fellows! The day is waning. Flush your throats with ale and wine,” he commanded with a jolly expression. “Soon, the song shall begin.”
Godfrey lay on his back atop the highest tower in the Citadel, staring up at the sky. Despite guards constantly patrolling, he remained undetected. As the sun set, the first stars began appearing. “How fortunate you are,” he muttered. “Regardless of what happens here, you remain far removed. Sometimes,” he admitted, “I long to be like you. Other times, I know I could never accept such a lot.”
In the distance, singing reached his ears. With sunset, the Dwarves had begun their song. Slowly they moved out from their houses, joining each other on the street to let their singing entwine. They sang of loss with deep voices, enough to stir the heart to sorrow; they sang of hope with rising voices, enough to spur the spirit to joy. Godfrey stood up, looking over the edge to see them in the distance. Next solstice, the Dwarves sang, they would be home.
“You and me both, I hope,” Godfrey whispered.