12. But the Raven Will Fly
But the Raven Will Fly
Roads of Southern Adalrik
While the lord marshal was moving towards Hæthiod, the prince Sigmund was sitting in his carriage with Baldric, the court jester. They were on the roads leading to Valcaster, though they had not yet entered the province of Vale. They were travelling on the Kingsroad, part of the large network of roads that connected the major cities of Adalmearc and was named thus because its principal purpose was to allow the swift marching of the high king’s armies.
The Kingsroad between Coldharbour and Valcaster was not particularly well kept, however, since most traffic took place on the river between those cities; on the other hand, this meant that the prince’s retinue had easy progress. While the carriage had no obvious markings showing that the heir to the realms was seated inside, the forty kingthanes in their surcoats accompanying it was evidence enough of its importance. Other travellers were swift to stand aside and let the company pass; whenever they reached roadhouses for the night, they occupied whichever rooms they desired.
The landscape surrounding them was pleasing to the eye. While northern Adalrik mostly had pastures for grazing sheep, cattle, and horses, southern Adalrik had many fields of grain that were growing gold in colour. The Kingsroad also ventured into the occasional forest, which served as hunting grounds for whichever nobleman presided over the area. While the woods might serve as hideouts for banditry and men exiled from civilised society, it was rarely the Kingsroad they preyed upon; especially between Coldharbour and Valcaster, considering only soldiers travelled this route, whereas the merchants moved by ship on the river.
The prince and his jester were thus talking without concerns, occasionally hanging out of the windows on the carriage until a thane would ride up and implore the prince to keep inside. “How long until we arrive, Baldric?” asked Sigmund impatiently.
The jester popped his head out of the window. “We shall arrive at a cluster of trees momentarily, my prince,” the jester said gravely.
“You know what I mean,” the prince said, giving his companion a friendly slap on the shoulder.
“Ah, but do you mean what Baldric knows?”
“That does not even make sense.”
“Truly, none have ever accused Baldric of making sense.”
“Tell me something else then. Tell me about Jarl Valerian.”
“Ah, the great jarl of the Vale,” Baldric said and leaned forward to whisper in a manner that mimicked conspirators. “Obeyed by merchants everywhere, feared by competitors far and wide, scourge of clerks who miscalculate, truly the most fearsome bookkeeper in the land!”
This recitation of titles made Sigmund giggle. “Is that really true?”
“While Baldric wishes he could lay claim to this jest, it was not his wit that came up with that title. The jarl was known as ‘the Bookkeeper’ long before Baldric’s hunched back graced the dancefloors of Middanhal.”
“He does not sound like much fun,” Sigmund said.
“Doubtful, tiny potentate, doubtful. Baldric imagines he sleeps on his hoard of gold and jewels like the dragons in poorly conceived stories.”
“I adore stories about dragons,” Sigmund objected.
“Because you will be a dragon one day, my diminutive prince,” the jester said. “Though Baldric has never understood how putting a crown on your head turns a prince into a dragon.”
“You are being silly,” Sigmund scolded him. “It is just a title, a symbol. Because the crown is shaped like a war helmet with a dragon nesting upon it, and the throne in the Citadel is shaped like a dragon as well.”
“Baldric does not like symbols, minor majesty,” the jester proclaimed. “Such liars, pretending to be something they are not.”
There was silence for a moment until Sigmund spoke again. “Baldric, tell me about my father.”
“And wherefrom does this sudden urge come to know of men long gone, oh smallest of sovereigns?”
“Well, my father would be the Dragon of Adalrik now if all were right. Tell me about him.”
“As you wish, littlest of lords,” Baldric said while performing a kind of mock bow, which almost made him fall to the carriage floor as it shook on the road. Recovering himself, he cleared his throat. “Your father was tall and strong, my midget monarch. When he spoke, men obeyed. They called him ‘the Dragonheart’, though Baldric never understood. How can the heart of such a great beast fit into a tiny man?”
“Baldric, you are being silly again. You know it is a symbol to show he is strong and brave like a dragon.”
“Symbols again,” Baldric said sounding very disheartened. “Such is talk for fools.”
“But Baldric,” argued the prince with a frown, “you are a fool.”
Their conversation was interrupted as something struck against the carriage. “Arrows!” came the warning shout from the thanes outside.
“Drive!” yelled Berimund to the driver of the carriage, who immediately afterwards was struck and fell dead to the ground. Most of the thanes converged around the carriage and dismounted, using their horses as cover or diving behind nearby trees. They were troubled by the now masterless horses, which began to rear and became skittish, moving the carriage forward in abrupt intervals. A few of the kingthanes rode away from the road in search of the enemy archers, but they were struck down by arrows as well. A terrible scream, the scream of an eleven-year-old boy, came from inside the wagon, and Berimund abandoned his cover behind a tree trunk.
As the captain reached the carriage, the hail of arrows ceased. Berimund grabbed the door with one hand and tore it off its hinges. Inside he found a howling Baldric, and the big thane shot his hands inside. Pulling the prince out, the bearlike man cradled the boy in his hairy arms even as he sank to his knees, sobbing. An arrow protruded from a low angle under the prince’s throat, and blood had already soaked the chest of his doublet and dyed it even darker. The last heir to the realms was dead.
The kingthanes spent the rest of the day combing the small forest and surrounding area while the captain and a few others remained by the carriage, guarding the body. It was late evening when some of them returned, reporting that they found something of interest. Berimund mounted his horse, and they swiftly rode through the woods and out into the open fields until at length they reached a burned down barn.
“Captain,” saluted the couple of thanes who were already there.
“What have you found,” Berimund asked, not returning their gesture.
“We found some pottery shards nearby, stinking of lamp oil,” said one of the thanes. “We think somebody set fire to the barn deliberately.”
“And?” the captain said impatiently.
“It was Alaric who saw it,” a thane said, gesturing to another. Clearing his throat, Alaric motioned for the captain to follow inside what remained of the charred structure.
“There were numerous bodies inside, more than twenty. Most are burned to a crisp,” Alaric explained as they walked across and crushed the sod under their boots, “but the fire did not quite catch over here. The men are still dead, choked on the smoke probably, but their belongings are intact.” The thanes walked over to one corner of the barn, less touched by the fire than the rest. Several bodies lay pressed against the corner, giving the impression of how they would have sought refuge in this part while the rest of the building burned.
“And?” the captain repeated, still with no hint of patience.
“Their bows must have burned elsewhere, but there were arrows scattered about. And they all had gold coins in their hands or pockets. Gold, captain, not silver.”
“These are the murderers, then,” Berimund muttered, kneeling down by one of the corpses.
“So it would seem. If the others here had gold as well, it must have melted along with their bodies. But archers with gold coins, captain, the explanation seems obvious,” Alaric said cautiously.
“The bastard behind all of this gathered his archers here for payment and burned the place down to kill them. Make sure they couldn’t talk,” said the other thane.
“We also found this on one of them,” Alaric said, retrieving an object from his pocket. It was a small ivory figurine, though blackened by soot, showing an archer pulling back his bow.
“Let me see that,” Berimund demanded, standing up quickly. The thane threw it to him, and the captain held it up to examine it in the dwindling light.
“You should also see the coin, captain. It’s not a gold crown,” said Alaric.
“It doesn’t have the dragon stamped on it, but some ship,” the other thane added, giving the coin to Berimund, who gave it a closer look.
“You two, see if you can track anybody that left this place. The rest of you, we are done here,” Berimund said, beckoning the remaining thanes to return to the others.
They gathered the bodies of the dead thanes in the carriage for transport, but not the prince. For him, Berimund unclasped his cloak, and they used it as a bier to carry the slain prince upon. They had removed the arrow, but they let the wound and blood remain visible; with a thick voice, Berimund declared that he wanted the whole realm to see what had been done to the prince. He and another thane grabbed the corners of the cloak and lifted up, and they began the march back to Middanhal.