15. The Dragons of Wyrmpeak
The Dragons of Wyrmpeak
When morning came, it was the day of the prince’s burial. The procession began in the Hall of the Honoured Dead. A simple bier had been constructed to carry the prince’s body; four kingthanes, one in each corner, lifted him up. Berimund, their captain, walked in front and led the group. The rest of the thanes were placed in a circle; as the procession moved up and outside the Citadel, they formed a defensive line around the body of the slain. Just behind the bier walked Isabel, who had been wife to one prince, mother to another, and was now neither; her face was stiff and revealed no emotions. The knight marshal in his capacity as dragonlord had the position next to Isabel.
Behind them as a special courtesy was Baldric, weeping uncontrollably, and then came all the high nobility of Adalrik, consisting of the jarls and their followers, the landgraves and margraves, and the two atheling houses, Arnling and Hardling. Brand and Arndis stood for Arnling, whereas Hardling was represented by three brothers and a sister. Curiously, as with Brand, the head of House Hardling was a young man not even of age; he only had this position because his father had died long before time.
Once outside the castle, the procession entered the Arnsweg, following it south to the Temple square and then east. All along the streets, people were lined up to catch a last glimpse of the prince. Unlike two days ago when the prince’s body was returned to Middanhal, the crowds were not caught by the same frenzy in their grief. Now it was more subdued, tears rather than cries with flowers thrown onto the cobbled stones before the procession. It did not rain, but nor did the sun shine; it hid behind clouds, casting a bleak light over the city.
Eventually the procession left the Arnsweg and reached the eastern mountainside against which Middanhal was built. Just south of here was the waterfall where the river Mihtea flowed from the mountains and into the city; even from the distance, the sound of the thundering water could be heard. The procession was headed elsewhere, however, towards an opening in the mountain that led inside and underneath the Wyrmpeak. It was the Crypt of Kings.
While commoners were typically buried outside the city and the nobles often had their own crypts and gravesites in their fiefs, the House of Adal had buried all their dead in this place; so it had been ever since Sigvard, buried there as the first underneath the mountain where he had done his great deed. Over the years, labourers had expanded the vault, chiselled out new graves, and made room for more sarcophaguses. All of the kings rested here in their stone coffins, typically together with their queen. The vaulted room was large enough to hold the entire procession even if the narrow entrance caused some delay in allowing all to enter. A band of soldiers had entered ahead of the mourners and now stood with torches in a ring along the edge of the circular room, allowing people to see; their lights were like stars in the vault of night.
The crypt was made so that the dead were buried along the sides in alcoves carved out for the purpose. When the entire lower row had been filled out, they simply began cutting out alcoves a row above and filling that out. Over the centuries, several rows had been filled, and the guildsmen had constructed a ramp to be able to bring the prince’s body up to his last resting place. They were hampered slightly by the fact that the centre of the vault was occupied by Sigvard’s grave; naturally, he held the place of honour, and his tomb stood alone.
Opposite the entrance and a few rows up were the latest excavated alcoves. Among them was King Sighelm’s tomb, currently the last high king of Adalmearc. Like the others, it was a stone coffin with a statue carved upon the lid; it showed the king as an aged man, but peaceful as he lay in a restful pose. Between the stone hands was something of the utmost value, however; it was the Dragon Crown of Adalrik. It was in fact a helmet made of sea-steel as smiths and scholars called it; a type of steel that none knew anymore how to make. It made the metal appear like a sea with waves crashing against each other, hence the name.
This particular helmet was fashioned in a particular manner; on top of the helmet shape was carved the form of a dragon with its wings falling down the sides and its tail curling down the back. It was slightly gilded, but it was made of sea-steel as well with the wave pattern resembling scales; it was a tremendous feat of craftsmanship to make the arbitrary pattern appear in this manner. Many of the nobles glanced towards the crown as it lay resting between the hands of the marble statue of King Sighelm, where it lay waiting for the day that his son or his son’s son would come to claim it, a day that would now never arrive.
The four kingthanes walked up the ramp and reached the stone coffin intended for Sigmund. It was next to his father’s, Sigmar, where one day the lady Isabel was also intended to be placed. For now though, she was still alive and advanced up the ramp behind her son. Once the thanes had lowered him down, carefully rearranging his hands around his sword again, they stepped back and let the lady bid her son farewell. She leaned over to kiss his cold forehead before yielding her place to the high priestess of Idisea. The norn said her prayers over the grave, promising the prince an eternal rest and Idisea’s wrath on any who would attempt to disturb his sleep. Feathers of a raven were scattered over the open coffin, and a small eagle statuette in gold was placed on top of the body; the eagle would guide his soul across the gap to the land of the gods while the raven feathers were a reminder of Idisea’s watchful gaze.
The ritual done, Isabel gestured for the thanes to place the stone lid upon the coffin. Guild artisans had been hard at work to fashion the sarcophagus, which was not merely stone but marble; atop the lid was carved a statue in the likeness of the prince. Below it were written his birth words according to custom. For some reason, upon seeing the marble statue and the words inscribed below, Isabel could not stop an outburst of tears as the thanes placed the lid down and sealed the coffin shut.
Once outside the mountain, the procession began to scatter. Athelstan stood beside his nephew, speaking in quiet tones. “I agree with your father that it is best you remain in Middanhal until it is done,” Athelstan said.
“I may not even be needed here,” Eumund complained. “I should go to Hæthiod with you.”
“You still can once it is over. But should something unforeseen happen, I consider it wiser you are here. You can perhaps balance some of your father’s temper.”
“As you say,” Eumund relented.
“We will have to make excuses,” Athelstan continued. “I will inform Sir Richard and the others that you will be travelling with the last regiments coming from the north, while Sir Fionn in turn will think you have already left. You better remain out of sight at the estate until after the feast.”
“Of course,” Eumund said. “But afterwards I will join you in Hæthiod, correct?”
“If all goes well, “Athelstan nodded. “Just make sure you bring the all documents, signed by the correct seals. Once news as well as I reach the lord marshal in Hæthiod, we need to have everything in order.”
“I will, Uncle,” Eumund said, smiling. “In two days’ time it will be done.” Then they parted ways.
The days of mourning had delayed all movements and transport to the Order’s encampment. Thus, a few days’ worth of wagons along with a number of newly enlisted soldiers stood awaiting in the courtyard. Nicholas stood with his bow staff and bag in a group of other soldiers, none of whom he knew. He had said goodbye to the tavern keeper Gilbert and his maid Ellen earlier that day, and now he stood inspecting his staff simply because there was nothing else to do. Sir Richard of Alwood’s sergeant, the replacement for Eumund as his squire, was waiting for his lord with horses saddled. Since Brand had been part of the burial procession, he did not have horses ready for Athelstan and himself; however, a few quick commands to some of the idling soldiers took care of that.
“It was not long we had together,” Arndis said, attempting to smile.
“They are merely blackboots and rabble outlanders,” Brand remarked lightly. “I will see you again before winter solstice, I am sure of it.”
“I hope you are right,” Arndis said, biting her lower lip. She gave Brand an embrace. “Be safe, Brother.”
Brand returned the gesture and pulled back. “I will, Sister. Enjoy court life,” he added smiling.
“I will try,” Arndis said with a half-hearted smile.
“Before I forget,” Brand said suddenly. “I was at our home, and I took our house book with me. The Arnling Tome of Names,” he added.
“How come?” Arndis asked frowning.
“In case my creditors should get a bit zealous, perhaps help themselves to the contents of our house. The rest is of little worth, but not the book.”
“Is it in our quarters? I did not see it,” Arndis said.
Brand shook his head. “I gave it to the King’s Quill to tend to it. It has suffered a little wear over the years, and there is no safer place for a book than in that tower,” he added smiling. “If I am not back in time for your twenty-first, you can read your birth words yourself.”
“Just focus on getting back to read your own,” Arndis admonished him. “When this war is over, we will celebrate both your return and your coming of age.”
“We will, dear sister,” Brand said with a final smile. He mounted his horse and took position in the company next to Athelstan, and they departed from the courtyard.
The soldiers manning the Citadel slept and lived in barracks on the lower floors. When there were jarls or noblemen living in the castle with a following of thanes, they could not have all their men staying in their own personal chambers at the same time, and so these thanes were usually quartered in the barracks as well. The exception to all this were the kingthanes, naturally, who had their own quarters in the royal section of the Citadel. In this way, they could watch all who entered the royal compartments. As captain of the kingthanes, Berimund had his own private room next to the halls that served as barracks to his men. With the burial of the prince ended, Berimund now returned his chamber.
It was austere and small, not much more than the cell offered to knights and beorns living at the castle. There were a few pieces of furniture; a bed, an armoire for his clothes, an armour rack, and a place to hang his weapons fulfilled his needs. Looking around the familiar room, Berimund stood still for a few moments. Then he unfastened the great battle axe from his back and leaned it against the wall before he removed his surcoat with its golden dragon upon a blue background, placing it on the bed carefully. He stretched it to its full length, smoothing out any wrinkles, and unbuckled his sword belt. He removed the mail armour that he wore beneath the surcoat and hung it upon the rack, then did the same with the leather jerkin he wore underneath that until only his linen tunic remained.
Picking up his scabbard, Berimund pulled out the sword. Its handle was elaborate, made in the fashion of a dragon’s head and gilded; it had been a gift from the king when he had become captain of the kingthanes some years ago. “I do not deserve your edge,” Berimund said to the sword and placed it unsheathed on the bed next to the surcoat. Taking a deep breath, he collected a rope that had been stashed in his wardrobe and began to fashion a noose.
Arndis had not previously been to the library tower. However, there were plenty of accommodating kingthanes in that part of the Citadel who were happy to show the young, beautiful lady the way she needed, and she had no trouble finding it. Gaining admittance, she looked around the main hall of the tower with its many shelves, all lined with books. From an adjoining room came a slender, aged man with dark hair, tanned skin, and stains of ink upon both his robe and fingers. “May I help you, my lady?” asked Quill.
“Forgive me for approaching you,” Arndis said with a bow; although he was not nobility, the King’s Quill was usually treated as such. “I am Arndis of House Arnling. My brother may have mentioned me.”
“He did,” Quill said with a smile. “He apologised too that there had not been occasion to make introductions himself.”
“He has been a bit preoccupied of late,” Arndis explained.
“No doubt,” Quill replied. He gestured for Arndis to follow into the adjoining room, the scriptorium. “I imagine you have come here because of this,” he said and pointed to a large volume placed open upon one of the desks.
“Our Tome of Names,” Arndis exclaimed. “Yes, I recognise it.”
“I am merely examining it,” Quill reassured her. “I may freshen the ink on some of the oldest pages. Eight hundred years do make letters fade.”
“You have my brother’s trust and therefore mine,” Arndis said, to which Quill inclined his head in acceptance.
She moved over to the great volume, touching the edges of the paper. In it were inscribed the names of all the members of House Arnling with the first name being Arn and the last two being Adalbrand and Arndis. Next to the names were written other pertinent information about each person, their relations to others, their titles, and most importantly, their birth words.
The norn or norns presiding over a birth would, once the child had been safely delivered, speak three sentences pertaining to the child’s future, which often influenced what name they would be given. It was custom upon the twenty-first birthday when a child became of age to be told his or her birth words. Since Arndis was not old enough yet, she did not look at her own entry, but instead she gazed down upon the first page. Next to Arn’s name, his titles, and his deeds were written his birth words as well. “Born to eagle wings, soul filled with fire, taller than winged wyrm,” she read aloud.
“Careful,” Quill cautioned her. “That page is a little worn.”
Arndis’ fingers quickly shied away from the book. “I merely came to see it. Brand – I mean, Adalbrand told me you were mending it.”
“As I said, refreshing it where necessary. Brand is a friend,” Quill said with a gentle smile.
“I am glad. I will not take more of your time,” Arndis said and turned to leave.
“The library is always open to you, my lady, should you require any solace,” Quill told her with a bow. She smiled in gratitude and left.
Passing down the corridors by the king’s quarters, Arndis heard the curious sound of something heavy falling down from one of the rooms near the thanes’ barracks. Good manners dictated one never entered a closed door to somebody’s room, but in this case, the door was slightly ajar. Arndis peeked inside, and a curious sight greeted her. Inside was the captain of the kingthanes. He was not in armour or armed, but instead he had rope around his neck, and a chair lay fallen over on the floor.
“I cannot even tie a knot,” came an outburst from Berimund; he was sitting on the floor, having fallen down along with his rope, which had not been sufficiently fastened to the ceiling rafters to support the great man’s weight. Behind him, Arndis slowly pushed the door open and stepped inside.
“My lord,” she said, clearing her throat. Surprised, Berimund hurried to stand up but then stood speechless. “I am in need of a good length of rope,” she said to him, which made a questioning expression appear on his face. “Would you be so kind as to lend me some?” she asked, extending her hand expectantly. Dumbfounded, Berimund removed the noose around his neck and handed her the rope.
“I am also a little uncomfortable around sharp edges,” Arndis continued, gesturing towards the unsheathed blade on Berimund’s bed. “Would you be so kind as to sheathe it?” Again, Berimund complied with her request wordlessly. Out in the corridor, a few thanes appeared to investigate the commotion. Arndis, however, turned and silently beckoned them to disappear, and when their captain did not say otherwise, the thanes followed her command.
Turning back to Berimund, Arndis sent him a smile and took a seat at the edge of the bed. “Do you have something to drink? I am a little thirsty,” she told the captain. He glanced around confused until he saw a pitcher of ale and poured some of its content into a cup. He offered it to her, which she accepted. “Will you take a cup as well? To keep me company,” she suggested. Berimund filled another cup and drank heavily from it. When it was empty, he exhaled and sat down in a chair. “Much better,” Arndis remarked.
“I am sorry,” Berimund began to speak, but Arndis interrupted his speech with a wave of her hand.
“You are a man who takes his oaths seriously, I deem.”
“I am,” Berimund said with a thick voice. “And I failed –”
Again, Arndis interrupted him. “I need a promise from you, Lord Berimund. I need you to promise me that when I leave this room, I will not have cause to come back and request more rope from you,” she said.
“I promise,” Berimund said somewhat meekly, looking down into his empty cup.
“Good,” Arndis said with a smile. “I know you will keep your promise.”
“Forgive me, my lady. You have the advantage of me, knowing my name.”
“My manners, I apologise. I am Arndis of House Arnling.”
“You are the dragonborns new at court,” Berimund realised. “Perhaps why command seems natural to you.” The thane frowned before he spoke again. “Arnling, you say? Your brother, he was the one….”
“Who wanted your position, yes. I hope you will not hold it against him. It was not personal.”
“Perhaps I should have let him,” Berimund muttered. “He might have done better.”
“I refuse to believe any could have done better than you, my lord,” Arndis said sternly.
Berimund swallowed, speaking with a thick voice. “There is no greater shame for a thane than to survive his lord,” he said.
“I had a moment of despair not long ago,” Arndis began to explain. “When I found out my brother was leaving me to be on my own. But I remembered that I had been on my own for many years, long before my brother returned to Middanhal. True shame, my lord Berimund, would be to give in to a moment of despair. That is not worthy of a dragonborn nor a kingthane.” Arndis stood up, and Berimund did likewise in a show of courtesy. “We will meet again no doubt,” Arndis said to the thane, who bowed in response. “Thank you for the rope,” she added, and left with the aforementioned object in her hand. It was later found burned in the hearth of her chamber.