16. A Breach of Sanctity
A Breach of Sanctity
Two days after the prince had been buried, Middanhal returned to some semblance of normality. Some of the nobles were leaving the city, returning to their estates and fiefdoms; nearly all the soldiers and their baggage train had departed for Lake Myr, including much of the city guard. Only a few regiments were present now and intended for departure later that day. In comparison with the crowds at solstice, the city streets seemed almost empty apart from the northern gate, which still saw people entering. Another exception was the gardens of the Citadel, still often frequented by the remaining nobles at court taking advantage of the summer weather and warm mornings. While the members of the House of Vale were staying at their own mansion in the city, it was not surprising to see Valerie in those blossoming surroundings; at least not to those who noticed that of late she had often been seen there.
With eyes glancing in every direction, she walked out of sight, moving behind a large oak tree. Another person was waiting for her; upon seeing this, Valerie’s expression bloomed into a smile. “Isenwald,” she said happily. He did not reply to her greeting other than he took her hands.
“Time – is short today,” he told her, his expression grave.
“What is wrong?” she asked upon seeing his countenance.
“You have to leave the city. Your family must as well,” Isenwald said forcefully.
“I do not understand,” Valerie said, but Isenwald cut her off.
“My father plans something. I – do not know what. He will not tell me until tonight.”
“And you are concerned for my sake?” she questioned.
“Whatever – it – is, he holds no affection for your family. He has brought soldiers to the city. Please – I beg you, leave today.”
“It sounds so drastic,” Valerie said with doubt. “I know he is holding a feast, is it not simply that?”
“There are too many soldiers for – it to be something that – innocent,” Isenwald told her.
“But leave the city? Just like that?”
“You must,” Isenwald urged her. “Please – I know my father. You must convince yours that you are all to leave.”
“I am not sure my father will follow my counsel unless I can tell him who gave me warning,” Valerie said slowly. “And if I do, he will never let me near you again.”
“After tonight – I fear that would be the case regardless. It – is more – important that you are safe,” Isenwald impressed upon her. She pressed the paper in her hands against him.
“If I had known this would be a letter of farewell, I would have written differently. And much more,” she said, her voice not entirely steady and dew drops threatening to appear in the corner of her eye. Isenwald accepted her letter and gave her his own parchment in return.
“Nor – is mine such a letter. It – is – only a letter – of goodbye for now,” he said with an attempt to smile. She cleared her throat, trying to speak, but no words came. Instead, she simply took his letter and swiftly, lightly, touched his mouth with hers; then she was gone.
The jarl of Theodstan was eating breakfast in his own quarters when his sister entered the parlour. “Theodoric,” she said, making him look up. “I think the jarl of Isarn is plotting against the Crown.”
“If there is a Crown at the moment,” Theodoric commented dryly before her remark sank in. “Wait, how do you mean?”
“I was at the gardens and listened to his son, the one who talks slowly. He was warning Valerie of Vale to take her family and leave the city.”
“Hold a moment. Why would the son of Isarn, who hates Vale, warn said enemy’s daughter?”
“Because they are young and foolish,” Theodwyn said impatiently, “and their fathers’ enmity towards each other no doubt only encourages them.”
“He is rumoured to be a half-wit,” Theodoric admitted. “He probably would do something like that. But did he say anything specific?”
“No, only that his father was gathering soldiers.”
“Considering that your source probably is a half-wit, perhaps we should be cautious in trusting him,” Theodoric objected.
Their conversation was interrupted by Holwine who entered wearing a cloak, breeches, and other clothes for warmth. “Have you been out all night?” asked the jarl.
“Noticed something odd yesterday and didn’t get home in time before the Citadel’s gate was closed,” Holwine said, shedding the cloak. “With solstice over, you would think traffic was leaving the city. But there’s been steady stream of people entering Woolgate for the last few days,” Holwine continued, using the colloquial name for the northern gate. “I asked our man watching the Saltgate, but everything seemed normal there.”
“Could these people entering the north gate perhaps be soldiers from Isarn?” asked Theodwyn innocently.
“Possibly,” Holwine admitted. “I saw no obvious weapons, no spears or shields, but their cloaks could easily conceal swords and mail shirts.”
“The feast tonight,” Theodoric suddenly said. “All the nobles, well most of them, along with their thanes and families will attend. All gathered at the Isarn compound.”
“Soldiers brought into the city and all the jarl’s rivals gathered,” Holwine said slowly. “That is no coincidence.”
“At the same time that the last Order troops are marching out of the realm,” Theodwyn added.
“Not yet,” Holwine corrected her. “There are a few regiments at the Citadel still, though I think they are marching out today.”
“Leaving the city nearly empty of troops,” Theodoric said contemplatively. “We must stop them from leaving. Whatever Isarn plans, we cannot have the city defenceless.”
“Go to the knight marshal,” Theodwyn suggested. “Tell him to detain the troops.”
“The knight marshal does not take my counsel,” Theodoric smiled sardonically. “He has made that clear.”
“Captain Theobald?” Theodwyn said, turning the suggestion towards the captain of the city guard.
“If he had any power to withhold troops, he would have done so. They have taken nearly his entire guard with them to Lake Myr. Plus, all we have are speculations and rumour,” Theodoric objected. “The captain has no reason to believe me.”
“The regiments are led by a knight, correct?” asked Holwine.
“Most likely,” Theodoric said.
“They cannot leave without their knight commander,” Holwine said with a smile. “I will make sure the regiments are delayed here in the Citadel,” the servant claimed, leaving the parlour.
“We should speak with Vale,” Theodwyn suggested. “If his daughter has warned him, he will be as eager as we are.”
“Valerian cannot stop this,” Theodoric shook his head. “He has no troops in the city. If he has any sense, he will flee as swiftly as possible rather than wait for Isarn’s men to come and drag him away.”
“What of the encampment at Lake Myr then?” asked Theodwyn. “There must be several thousand men at the lake.”
“There should be, some five thousand I believe,” Theodoric said. “But they are led by Sir Athelstan. The jarl’s planning is excellent. His brother leads all Order troops out of the realm, leaving the city defenceless. But,” he added quickly in a flash of remembrance, “Richard is there as well.”
“He will believe you,” Theodwyn claimed. “He is your oldest friend.”
“It is worth the attempt,” Theodoric considered. “If Richard can stop the Order forces from leaving Adalrik and march back to Middanhal… it will be too late to stop Isarn from whatever he plans tonight, but he cannot have more than some hundred men in the city. A thousand at most, and their hold on the city will be tenuous at best. Richard can retake the city once we return.”
“You have to go,” Theodwyn agreed. “Go, warn Richard, convince him to throw Athelstan in chains and march straight back to Middanhal.”
“Let us hope it will not be Athelstan throwing me in chains,” Theodoric said darkly. “If I ride now and avoid being conspicuous, I will be by Lake Myr in two or three days. A forced march and another four days should see us back in Middanhal.”
“It will raise suspicion if you do not attend Isenhart’s feast tonight,” Theodwyn pointed out.
“Suspicions, maybe, but I doubt Isarn will alter his course,” Theodoric argued.
“Nonetheless, seeing you ride hard out of the southern gate and your absence tonight,” Theodwyn continued, “he may guess your intent. Best we keep him in the dark for as long as we can.”
“What do you propose?” asked Theodoric.
“Holebert,” Theodwyn called, and the servant came out into the parlour.
“Stand next to my brother,” she commanded, which Holebert did. “You are about same height.”
“Not the same hair,” Theodoric countered; Holebert was nearly shorn with brown stubbles, while the jarl had longer, darker locks. “Not the same face, for that matter. Not to mention Holebert has one finger too many,” the jarl added, raising his left hand with its four fingers.
“He will wear the gloves you are supposed to wear so you do not frighten others,” Theodwyn admonished him. “He will wear your clothes, he will arrive with me, and he will be wearing your cloak with the hood up to hide his face.”
“Will that not raise suspicions as well?” Theodoric argued.
“You, that is to say Holebert, will have a dreadful headache and eyes very sensitive to the light,” Theodwyn smiled. “Which will necessitate that you keep your hood up and eyes covered.”
“A dreadful headache?” Theodoric said doubtingly. “That sounds like a meagre excuse for the vengeance of wine.”
“Of course it does,” Theodwyn said, clapping her brother’s cheek. “But you are a jarl, and it would be impertinent for any to question your explanation or choice of attire.”
“Very well,” Theodoric conceded. “But first, Holebert, go down to the barracks. Fetch my sergeant, and tell him to bring a handful of my thanes, but quietly. We do not wish to alert any that I am leaving the city.” Holebert bowed and left to carry out the command.
While the jarl of Theodstan and his associates were thus occupied, Valerie of Vale was not wasting time either. Returning home, she hurried inside and into her father’s study. “Valerie,” he exclaimed. “You know I do not like being disturbed while going through my ledgers,” the jarl reproached her.
“Father, we have to leave the city. Today,” she insisted.
“What talk is this? Are you ill?” asked her father.
“I was warned,” Valerie said and then hesitated slightly. “By Isenwald. The son of –”
“I know whose son he is,” Valerian interrupted brusquely. “Why were you speaking with him?”
“You introduced us,” Valerie pointed out. “You made us meet for our engagement.”
“Weeks ago,” Valerian said with suspicion in his voice. “Not this morning or any other mornings where you have been away.”
“Father, this is not the time,” Valerie began to say.
“I decide when it is time to discuss this,” the jarl roared, “as I decide anything else in this family! Or have you forgotten?”
“Father, please,” Valerie said with a shaking voice.
“I give you free rein and you betray me, go behind my back?” her father yelled.
“Normally I would leave you alone,” another voice broke in, “but your shouting is disturbing. I am meeting Linstead soon to discuss the state of the realm, which takes precedence, I should think,” Konstans said icily. His brother and niece both stopped and looked at him.
“My daughter betrays me,” Valerian roared.
“Uncle, please listen to me,” Valerie said, though her words almost drowned in her father’s shouts. “Isenwald came to me today and warned me.”
Valerian began to speak in an angry tone, but Konstans raised his hand to command silence. “Valerie, what is this talk of the Isarn boy?”
“He is of age, actually, not a boy,” Valerie began, but the look on her father’s face made her hurry to continue. “He saw me today, and he warned me that his father plans something. He fears for my life, for our lives.”
“And what reason does the boy have for being concerned for you? What is the source of his trustworthiness?” enquired Konstans.
“We have,” Valerie hesitated, “been exchanging letters. Nothing more,” she hastened to add.
“He cares for you?” Konstans asked while Valerian appeared ready to burst in anger.
“I believe so,” Valerie said quietly.
“Valerie, you know what his family has done to ours!” Valerian finally yelled. “Isarn is not somebody we willingly associate with. Especially not that half-wit son they have!”
“He is not, Father!” Valerie exclaimed. “If you would only know him as I do.”
Konstans gestured for both of them to be quiet. “I underestimated Isarn,” he spoke, and father and daughter turned their attention to him. “It rests upon the Adalthing to choose a new heir, which is what I have been preparing for. But Isarn knows he can never win an election. He was not even close to becoming lord protector,” Konstans said contemplatively. “He is breaking the rules to win the play.”
“You believe me?” Valerie asked, relief flooding her voice.
“I do. The Order forces leaving Adalrik, Isarn holding a feast tonight, it makes sense.”
“Do not think this excuses you,” Valerian said sternly. “Konstans, what do you suggest we do?”
“If Isarn has planned this right, he has far more men in the city than we do. We have to leave, return to Vale, and prepare to strike in retaliation.”
Valerian nodded. “We will leave in a few unmarked carriages with just the thanes. No reason to alert Isarn that we have been warned of his plans. Find Arion,” he added gruffly to Konstans, “and tell him to prepare.” As his brother left the room, the jarl looked at Valerie. “And you may prepare to be chained to your room in Valcaster!”
At the Citadel, Berimund was studying a golden coin. He was captain of the kingthanes, but the thanes had no charge anymore. The lady Isabel still lived in the royal quarters, but without her husband and her son, she did not as such have any ties to the House of Adal. Most of the thanes had been spending their time in the city, spending their silver as well. Others, like Berimund, had retreated to their quarters.
Berimund was sitting on his bed with his weapons set aside and his armour and surcoat hanging on the rack. He had not donned any of his gear since his conversation with Arndis the other day and did not do so now. Instead, he got up and left his room, wearing only a leather tunic above his linen shirt. Some of the kingthanes raised eyebrows at seeing their captain unarmed, but none raised any questions. Unhindered, Berimund passed through the Citadel until he approached a section adjacent to the northern courtyard, known as the Great Forge.
It was home to many furnaces for smelting metal, exuding heat. The greatest of these turned iron into Nordsteel, a stronger mettle than could be found elsewhere in the world; part of why the Order’s armies were so fearsome in battle and why it was forbidden to sell weapons or armour out of Adalmearc. The smaller furnaces were for silver or gold. Here, the workmen threw suspicious glances at Berimund, keeping a close eye on him. He had entered the part of the Great Forge that handled the precious metals of the realms; it was the Mint of Adalrik.
Deeper into the small compound, Berimund could hear the constant strokes of smiths hammering upon the dies which imprinted the symbols upon the coins. The die serving as anvil was the same for all of them, bearing the dragon of Adalrik. This gave the sharpest imprint, and it was a guarantee that the coin came from the Mint in Middanhal. The die on the other side took the brunt of the hammer stroke and was less uniform from coin to coin, which made it differ in sharpness. The image was also different according to the metal. A bull on copper coins, an eagle for silver, and a crown for gold.
Before Berimund could advance, however, his path was blocked. The man in front of him was not particularly tall, especially in comparison to the imposing Berimund; he was perhaps five feet and a few inches. He was bald but made up for this with a great beard, and he wore an apron and gloves in heavy leather. His skin was dark like the deep earth and his hair black as the roots of a mountain. In his left ear hung a golden ring; it was thin, but gold nonetheless. While this was an ordinary tradition among sailors, they had adopted it from the peculiar people that lived mostly in the northern cities of Adalmearc. The man blocking Berimund’s path was, like all the other people manning the Mint and most of the Great Forge, a Dwarf.
“Where do you think you’re going?” came a scowling question. Like all of his kind, the Dwarf was almost indistinguishable in appearance from Men; the only exceptions being besides his golden earring that his skin was darker compared to the men of the North and his voice deeper than his height would suggest.
“I need to ask someone who knows about coins,” Berimund said.
“Then go ask your mum,” replied the minter, “and make her tell you to stay out of other people’s business.”
“I am captain of the kingthanes,” Berimund exclaimed angrily, towering over the Dwarf, who did not seem suitably impressed.
“And I’m Master of the Mint. Now there ain’t any kings down here, but there is a Mint, which means I’m in charge,” the Dwarf said unmoved.
“I need help,” Berimund mumbled and dug out the golden coin that they had found among the bodies of the prince’s attackers. “I need to know where this comes from.”
“Eh?” the Dwarf said, plucking the coin from Berimund’s hands. He examined its sides and then placed it between his teeth and bit down. “Feels a little off. They must use more copper than we do.”
“But where is it from?” Berimund asked. The Dwarf stood weighing the coin in his hand; then he took out a Mearcian crown from his belt and held it in the other hand for comparison.
“Weight is just about the same though, very close to a mark,” The Dwarf continued. “I’d need the scales to know for sure.”
“I asked you, where is it from?” Berimund said impatiently.
“I heard you,” said the minter, flipping the coin back to the kingthane, who lunged forward with both hands to grab it. “Coin is from Alcázar,” the Dwarf continued. “Got that ship imprinted on it, that’s their sign. Any merchant who travels west could have told you that, I reckon.”
“So they’re common?” asked Berimund, holding the coin up to inspect the ship that was marked upon it.
“Probably in Herbergja they are,” the Dwarf said with disinterest. “Lots of ships there that also make port in Alcázar. But I’m a minter, not a merchant. So how’s about you sod off and leave us to our work!” Berimund sent the shorter man an angry glare, but he had no reply to make, so he simply turned around and left with the gold coin in hand.
Holwine hastened through the Citadel to reach the northern side. It was still early, and the remaining Order troops had not yet departed for Lake Myr. Looking out the window, however, one could see the regiments gathering, hauling carts out from cover, and harnessing the horses. A few hundred men, nearly all that remained of the Order’s forces in Middanhal. Once they were gone, there would only be a skeleton crew left of the city guard; what they needed to man the gates of the city and the Citadel, and scarcely more than that.
Holwine stopped briefly to inspect the courtyard. The horses for the knight and his attendant were ready and saddled but currently riderless; Holwine therefore ran towards the hallways between the northern courtyard and the barracks and cells, where most knights resided. Seeing two men in armour down a corridor, Holwine glanced towards their heels and saw golden spurs on one of them.
“Sir, sir!” Holwine called out. Both men turned around. “Sir Roderic sent me to fetch you before you leave. He has final instructions for you,” the servant told the knight.
“Could he not simply have had you pass them on?” the knight asked brusquely.
“They are matters above my head,” Holwine said with an expression of ignorance.
“Of course,” the knight sighed and turned to his sergeant. “Tell the men to line up and stand ready. I will be there shortly.”
“Yes, milord,” the sergeant said and disappeared outside while the knight began to walk back into the Citadel, followed by Holwine.
“No need to follow me, I know the way,” the knight said gruffly, turning his head back to glance his pursuer.
“Of course, milord,” Holwine said, the servant bowing while walking just a few steps behind. “But Sir Roderic bade me return as well.”
“Sir Roderic,” the knight said with a poorly concealed measure of contempt. “I bet it suits him fine to remain here at the castle.” Holwine did not answer but merely fell back another pace, out of the knight’s line of vision, and pulled out a sap.
The royal compartments were in the south-western part of the Citadel on the top floors. Just below were the quarters of the dragonlord along with chambers for envoys from the other realms and the most prestigious guests; those would primarily be the jarls. Although the wings housing these prominent people were in such close proximity to the royal residence, there was no direct route going from the lower floor to the upper. All entries into the section reserved for the royal house were controlled and guarded by the kingthanes, and the path went through the area that served as their barracks.
Thus, Elis could not avoid them, and he moved slightly uncomfortable among the kingthanes as they passed him by in the hallways. It was rumoured that Elis had sought to replace their captain with an outsider, which made them look upon Elis with ill will. Now that he was no longer dragonlord, they did not disguise their dislike towards him. It was almost with relief that he reached his destination and requested admittance into the lady Isabel’s quarters. A handmaiden allowed him in, and he found Isabel sitting by her vanity mirror while another handmaiden was tending to her hair.
“Lord Elis,” Isabel said, glancing at him in the mirror.
“My lady,” Elis replied with a bow. “Might we speak under more private terms?”
Isabel glanced at him again and nodded at her handmaidens, who retreated into one of the inner chambers and closed the door behind them. “What is it?” asked Isabel.
“I came to dissuade you from attending the jarl of Isarn’s feast tonight.”
“It is held in my son’s honour, of course I should attend,” Isabel objected.
“I think it is held in the jarl’s honour mostly,” Elis said quietly. “It would be unwise to go.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I have come to know him quite well, and I do not trust him at all. He is vengeful, spiteful, and with an appetite for power above his station.”
“Much like you, then,” Isabel smirked.
“I play by the rules,” Elis retorted. “With the heir to the realms gone, the rules have become – hazy.”
“You mean to say that my son’s death has left the rule of law doubtful,” Isabel said pointedly.
“Yes, my lady,” Elis said cautiously. “I think Isarn intends to take advantage of it.”
“Could that not be to our advantage as well? Is he not the enemy of Vale,” Isabel said and added quickly, “my enemy.”
“He is,” Elis nodded. “But if we deliver ourselves into Isarn’s hands, we will be nothing more than tools he can use as he wishes. I do not trust him to strike a bargain if he is in a position to simply take by force.”
“So what are you advising me to do?”
“To wait,” Elis told her. “We are safe in the Citadel but not at Isarn’s manor. Let us find out first what he plans and how it may fit with our own designs.”
“Wait,” Isabel said with scorn. “That is all you ever counsel me to do.”
“I also counselled you to write to your sister-in-law and your cousin. You have powerful relatives, Lady Isabel, but again, it takes time for letters to arrive. We must not act hastily on something of this import,” Elis impressed on her.
“Do you think they will act? Either of them?” Isabel asked, her teeth touching her lower lip.
“The invasion of Hæthiod has tied the hands of the regent, I would fear,” Elis admitted. “I will meet with her envoy here in Middanhal later to discuss what she may be able to do for you.”
“Korndale is another matter,” Elis said with more optimism. “Your cousin is free to act, and he can support his demands with military strength. King Adelard is certainly a match for the jarl of Vale.”
“These jarls have never respected my cousin,” Isabel complained, “even though by their terms he is dragonborn. They should bow to the king of Korndale as they did to my husband.”
“The northern jarls do not wish to bow to a southerner,” Elis explained, “and the southern jarls are afraid of losing their influence to a foreign king. So they discount him because it is only matrilineally that he is born of Sigvard’s blood.”
“Sigvard’s blood,” Isabel grimaced. “What does it matter whether it is inherited from his mother or his father? Blood is blood.”
“Not in Adalrik,” Elis pointed out, watching the lady.
Isabel sat silent for a moment before she spoke again. “Very well. I will not attend the feast tonight. I will wait as you wish.”
“Your patience will be rewarded in the end,” Elis promised, bowed, and took his leave.
Outside the royal suites, Elis passed through the kingthanes as hastily as he could while maintaining his dignity. Suddenly, however, he found his way hindered by a particularly large man. “Why are you here?” Berimund asked unfriendly.
“The affairs of a landgrave are not yours to pry into,” Elis replied with equal discourtesy in his voice. “You are a beorn. Little more than a commoner on the street.”
“I am captain of the kingthanes,” Berimund roared, gaining the attention of several others nearby.
“Yet where is the king?” Elis asked with a low hiss. “You are as useful as a brittle sword with no edge. Harmless and liable to break into pieces under pressure,” the landgrave sneered and moved past the kingthane before Berimund could reply.
Guests began to arrive at the Isarn mansion when it was late afternoon. The great feast hall had been prepared suitably, decorated in large banners of red and black. All cups, plates, and bowls were of silver and polished until they glittered. Nothing was served yet, however; it would not be until the first evening bell struck. As guests arrived on horseback or in carriages, they filtered into the hall and formed small groups.
The margraves of Ingmond stuck together, waiting for the arrival of their lord with their wives and children likewise forming circles of their own. None of the margraves under Vale was present, nor were the jarl and his family, which was expected. Neither of the jarls of Vale and Isarn had played host to the other for many decades now. What was less expected was the absence of noblemen from Theodstan, northerners like Isarn. The jarl of Theodstan entered, however, flanked by his sister and a few thanes.
The jarl separated from his sister to sit in a corner with his hood pulled up. “Bring the jarl a flagon of ale,” Theodwyn commanded a nearby servant, indicating where the jarl was seated. Then she narrowed her eyes as she spotted someone, and with a few quick strides, she crossed the hall. “Arndis,” she said, a tad sharply, and the young woman turned around with an almost guilty look. While Theodwyn was wearing black, Arndis had like most others in the room shed her clothes of mourning. She was exquisitely dressed in blue with a few discreet pieces of jewellery that accentuated her natural beauty.
“I know you said it would be unseemly for me to arrive alone, unattended,” Arndis mumbled, “but I could not stay behind at the castle. It would be more unseemly if I were seen to snub Jarl Isarn’s invitation,” she added hastily.
“It is not you he is interested in, I fear,” Theodwyn said quietly before she spoke again in a louder voice. “Well, since you are here, you can keep me company,” she added and took a firm grip on Arndis’ arm.
The hall was overseen by some of the upper floors of the manor whose corridors acted as balconies. The jarl Isarn stood upon one of them, keeping his distance; it was too early for the host to enter. By his side stood Ulfrik, captain of his thanes, and the jarl sent him a glance. “Are the men ready?” Isenhart asked.
“Awaiting your word,” Ulfrik confirmed. “Though we should have delayed a few days. Brought in a few hundred more.”
“Athelbold will arrive tomorrow should we need it,” Isenhart said dismissively, returning his gaze to the hall below. “Besides, in a few days the jarls might have left Middanhal and returned home.”
“As you say, milord,” Ulfrik conceded.
“Speaking of which, have they arrived?”
“None of Theodstan’s vassals, I believe,” Ulfrik said. “But the man himself is sitting in the corner there.”
“Drowning his sorrows these days,” Isenhart said with scorn. “Well, it does not matter. A jarl may act on behalf of his margraves if they are absent. Ingmond?”
“Here as well, milord,” Ulfrik said with satisfaction.
“Awaiting your arrival at your table.”
“Good, we can do it here. No need to drag people to the Citadel,” Isenhart smiled. “Time for the feast to begin.” With those words, he left the upper floor and moved towards the entrance of the hall.
Isenhart’s herald struck his staff in the ground a few times as his master entered the hall. “My lords and ladies, the jarl of Isarn bids you welcome to his home,” the herald announced.
“Indeed,” Isenhart let his powerful voice ring clear through the hall. “Welcome to my halls. In these trying times that the gods have seen fit to make us endure, it is important to strengthen our bonds and remember what we have in common,” the jarl said smiling. “And no better way than to do so with ample food and drink,” he added, clapping in his hands.
Several doors burst open to let servants issue from them, carrying large trays and plates of food. Ox and deer roast, cuts of pork and duck along with bowls of peas and beans, apples and wheat bread. As soon as the food had been placed, the servants left and returned swiftly with pitchers of wine and ale, ensuring all had something to drink. “Please, eat, drink to your heart’s content!” the jarl told his guests and clapped his hands again, which was the signal for a group of musicians to begin playing.
“Let us not disappoint our gracious host,” Theodwyn said with a smile, leading Arndis to a seat and taking one herself while sending a stolen glance towards the nearby figure clad in her brother’s clothes.
“Is the lord jarl well?” Arndis asked concerned as the thanes from Theodstan stood watch around him, practically intimidating people who approached.
“Just feeling a little uncomfortable,” Theodwyn said pleasantly, putting pieces of bread in her mouth. “But he braved it and came tonight. As you said, cannot refuse an invitation from the jarl of Isarn.”
“I see,” Arndis replied, looking elsewhere. “Is it not odd that Lady Isabel is missing? Supposedly this is in honour of her son.”
“Perhaps the lady is perceptive enough to know this is about the jarl,” Theodwyn said dryly.
“Jarl Vale and all his followers are missing as well,” Arndis remarked as her gaze swept through the room.
“To be expected,” Theodwyn replied. “He and his kin would not set foot under Isenhart’s roof except to burn it.”
“Such enmity, “Arndis said quietly. “I know nothing of the jarl of Vale except he has a reputation for being a hard man.”
“He has, though mostly where numbers are concerned, I am told,” Theodwyn explained. “He is called ‘the Bookkeeper’, did you know?” she added, which made Arndis giggle. “In truth, I do not think the good jarl is as harsh as he would have his believe. His first wife died many years ago in childbirth, which is why he only has the daughter.”
“I am not surprised you are well informed,” Arndis commented, which Theodwyn seemed to take as a compliment.
“The story became interesting a few years ago, though, and it even reached us in Theodstan. See, one of the jarl’s vassals was on hard years and could not fulfil his duties. Pay for upkeep of certain outposts and the supply of men and arms, Order contributions and so on,” Theodwyn continued. “The vassal did, however, have two young, unwed daughters. The jarl therefore proposed a marriage between himself and the eldest daughter as compensation for the margrave’s failures. Of course the margrave could not refuse his liege, nor dared he set any bride price.”
“However,” Theodwyn said, her voice becoming more excited as she reached the climax of the story, “the jarl not only forgave his vassal the debts owed to himself and paid those owed to the Crown, he paid the margrave a bride price of fifty crowns. And rather than after the wedding night, Jarl Vale gave his bride her morning gift on the very evening of their wedding. A small chest containing another fifty crowns along with the choice that she might live in his castle, at her father’s castle, or spend the money to live alone in a house in Valcaster.”
“That is quite a story,” Arndis said, digesting it. “Though I do not understand his reason for giving the morning gift before the wedding night. It is called a morning gift for a reason.”
“So she had a choice before the wedding night,” Theodwyn explained before an expression ran over her face. “I forgot you are a little lamb. Never mind that, my dear.”
“I suppose it is an interesting tale. Not to mention it highlights the jarl’s fabulous wealth,” Arndis pointed out.
“It does indeed, which I suspect is why it spread so quickly, especially to the north. I do think it says something about the jarl. His brother, on the other hand…” Theodwyn mumbled, her voice trailing off.
“Oh, the veiled lady is here tonight,” it burst from Arndis as she spotted Eleanor. “We saw her in the gardens, did we not?”
“Indeed,” Theodwyn exclaimed, “she must be the same one. I posed a few discreet questions around court, and it turns out she is Lady Eleanor of Tothmor.”
“Tothmor,” Arndis said a little surprised. “She is from Hæthiod?”
“And nothing more than a beorn or whatever they call it on the moors,” Theodwyn elaborated. “There is apparently a bit of a story behind her presence at court here in Middanhal.”
“A story you no doubt have heard in full,” Arndis said, hiding her expression by raising her cup of wine to her mouth.
“I did not want to brag,” Theodwyn said modestly. “She was the ward of Sir William of Tothmor. Yes, the very one who won the grand fight at solstice,” Theodwyn explained, seeing Arndis about to ask. “They arrived more than a decade ago when she was a child and he a newly minted knight. He has been away from time to time fighting for the Order, but she,” Theodwyn said with a look towards Eleanor, “she has simply been staying at court. Even though she is of age, she has yet to marry.”
“She seems lonely,” Arndis remarked, and indeed Eleanor sat alone as if her veil kept people at a distance.
“The truly interesting part is the veil, of course,” Theodwyn said, leaning towards Arndis like one conspirator to another. “They say something terrible happened to her family in Hæthiod, which is why she became Sir William’s ward. Whatever tragedy it was, it left its marks upon her face.”
“That is horrible,” Arndis exclaimed.
“Tragic, yes,” Theodwyn mumbled, stuffing more bread into her mouth.
“Should we talk to her?” Arndis pondered.
“You think she would tell us?” Theodwyn said with gleaming eyes.
“I do not think it would be appropriate to ask,” Arndis said cautiously. “But being alone at court is an unpleasant situation.”
“Very well,” Theodwyn said with a little sigh, “wait here, my soft-hearted lamb, and I will fetch one more for our herd.”
With those words, Theodwyn got up and crossed the hall to where Eleanor sat alone. “Lady Eleanor, am I correct?” she asked.
“I am,” Eleanor said in surprise, looking up from behind her veil. “But you have the advantage of me.”
“I am Lady Theodwyn, sister to the jarl of Theodstan. Which means you should greet me standing,” Theodwyn explained, though her voice was not unkind.
“I see,” Eleanor said hesitantly, standing up to perform a little bow.
“Marvellous,” Theodwyn added and took hold of Eleanor’s arm. “Since you are already standing, you will not mind accompanying me back to my table, will you?” Without waiting for an answer, Theodwyn swept Eleanor away and returned to her own table; Eleanor was seated so that Theodwyn herself had Arndis on one side and Eleanor on the other. “There we are, two little lambs, which makes me the shepherd, I suppose,” Theodwyn considered. “Fitting, considering nothing but sheep really lives in Theodstan.”
“Lady Eleanor? I am Arndis of House Arnling,” Arndis introduced herself. “No need to get up for my sake,” she added smiling as Eleanor was about to stand up to greet her.
“A pleasure,” Eleanor said quietly. “I am a little surprised you know me.”
“Oh, I am aware of many people I never talk to,” Theodwyn confided in her. “But your dress is marvellous. Let me guess. Abelard?”
“You are very perceptive, my lady,” Eleanor acknowledged.
“Oh, I know,” Theodwyn smiled.
“You are still wearing black for the prince?” Eleanor asked. While the entire nobility had worn black during the days of sorrow, most had returned to their house colours after the burial; the exception was the twins of Theodstan, who always wore black.
“Oh no, this is for my husband,” Theodwyn explained.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” Eleanor hurried to say. “I did not mean to bring it up.”
“No harm done, dear,” Theodwyn assured her.
“Lady Theodwyn, I did not even know,” Arndis said, her voice sounding slightly horrified.
“I never told you,” Theodwyn shrugged. “I do not like talking about such intimate affairs. Besides, my husband died many years ago.”
“But you still wear black?” Eleanor asked bewildered.
“I still miss him,” Theodwyn explained. “He was the finest man in all of Theodstan. A terrible swordsman though, died in the first battle he ever fought. Suppose I was lucky he managed to stay away from fights until he was thirty-five.”
“Does your brother wear black for similar reasons?” Arndis asked Theodwyn cautiously.
“No, he just thinks the colour makes him look imposing. Said something once about how a ruler should look fearsome. Honestly, I would say it makes him look dreadfully thin,” Theodwyn said casually. “Or what do you think?” she asked of her companions. Neither of them had any comments to share.
Leaving his guests, Isenhart walked out of the great hall and through corridors until he reached what constituted the backyard of his manor. There were storehouses, orchards, and vegetable gardens here, but a different sight met him now. Hundreds of soldiers stood in full arms, hidden between the buildings and the outer walls of the compound. In front stood Isenwald and Ulfrik.
“Where is Eumund?” asked the jarl.
“Keeping out of sight,” Ulfrik muttered. “But I sent someone to fetch him, he’ll be here soon.”
“Good,” Isenhart nodded. “It is nearly last bell, but wait a brief while before you move out. We want cover of darkness.”
“Will the guests not be leaving by last bell?” Isenwald asked hesitantly, though not due to any speech impediment.
“I will return now and extend my permanent hospitality,” Isenhart said with a predator’s smile. “There he is,” he added as Eumund joined them. He was, like his brother and the other men, wearing full armour.
“You know where to strike?” Isenhart asked.
“Yes,” it came from Eumund and Ulfrik. “Yes,” Isenwald said almost as swiftly.
“Good. Once you have taken Woolgate, send the rest of your men to reinforce Eumund at the Citadel,” the jarl said to his eldest son.
“I will,” Isenwald said quietly.
“Ulfrik, when Saltgate is safe in our hands, sweep through the eastern districts on your return. Kill any Vale soldiers you come across, but no need to hunt them. We will finish it tomorrow in due time.”
“Yes, milord,” the thane answered.
“But remember to pass by the Vale estate. You can kill those who resist, but I want the jarl alive. And his daughter for leverage,” Isenhart specified, and Ulfrik nodded in consent. “Good. Do not disappoint me,” the jarl added with a glance towards his sons, particularly the eldest before he turned and walked back inside.
Inside the hall, the festivities continued merrily. The margraves of Ingmond continued to remain huddled together along with the few southern landgraves who had accepted the jarl’s invitation. The rest of the guests, northerners all, felt freer and were participating in the chain dance taking place, all orchestrated by a bard. With the musicians accompanying him, he sang the song to which the revellers tread their steps and joined in on the chorus. As the bard finished his verse, he took a bow to much cheer, and the mixture of dance and drink provoked faces red with laughter and warmth.
“A delightful tune, ‘Arn of Old’,” Theodwyn said, as the bard song ended. “That must be pleasing to you, Arndis,” she remarked.
“I suppose it is an honour,” Arndis replied. She had remained seated during the dance when it had become clear that Eleanor would be.
“Of course, I forgot,” Eleanor said. “House Arnling, he was your ancestor.”
“Be glad my brother is not here to chastise you,” Arndis said wryly.
“Forgive me,” Eleanor added. “I have been here for a long time, but at times I still forget the customs of Adalrik.”
“In any case, I imagine our host chose this song because it features a jarl of Isarn,” Theodwyn said with an insincere smile. “I suppose when you pay the bard, you choose the song.”
“Strange, it does not seem like the jarl is here,” Arndis remarked. “You would think he would want to hear the song.”
“I think he is satisfied the rest of us shall hear it,” Theodwyn said, still smiling as before.
“There he is,” Eleanor told them as Isenhart returned to the great hall.
The jarl of Isarn walked to the end of the hall that was elevated compared to the rest, which held his own table and his most honoured guests. They were Sir Roderic, the dragonlord of the realm and its current ruler in the lord protector’s absence, and the jarl of Ingmond, his wife, and their young son. The intention had also been for the jarl of Theodstan and his sister to be placed here, though they had chosen to sit elsewhere than at the high table. Isenhart raised his hands in the air to command silence, and the clamour ended. “My lords and ladies of Adalrik, it has been an utmost pleasure to be your host tonight,” Isenhart said.
“I hate this part where they have to spout all these empty courtesies and platitudes,” Eleanor sighed.
“I think this one will be different,” Theodwyn mumbled tight-lipped.
“While there needs no special occasion to have a feast, tonight was held for a specific reason. It was intended to honour the memory of not only Prince Sigmund but the House of Adal that has ruled this realm since its beginning.” The mood turned sombre at the mentioning of the dead prince, and the atmosphere of mirth and revelry evaporated.
“But,” Isenhart continued, “it is not the end of the realm. As enemies threaten us abroad, so it is important we stand united within. We need a strong ruler around whom not only Adalrik but all the realms of Adalmearc can unite behind and follow.” This turn in the jarl’s speech bred some unrest; the eyes of many darted towards Sir Roderic. The knight sat restless as if about to stand, but he did not follow through.
“What is this about?” growled Ingmond instead, slowly rising from his seat.
“As jarls, we have a responsibility to ensure the realm’s safety,” Isenhart said loudly. “Keep it from being torn asunder by lesser men or falling to heel at those unworthy. Decisive action must be taken.”
“I have heard enough,” Ingmond declared and gestured for his family, his thanes, and vassals in his following to leave.
“Not yet,” Isenhart spoke in a commanding tone and clapped his hands. Along the upper floors and balconies, archers stepped forward with arrows on their bowstrings. From the many doors issued forth soldiers wearing the surcoat of Isarn.
“You dare break the sanctity of hospitality?” Ingmond said in a thundering voice, and several of his thanes drew their swords. Isenhart made a quick gesture with his hand, and arrows struck those down who had drawn weapons. With this irrevocable proof that the jarl had no qualms about killing guests under his roof, the other thanes and noblemen were quickly discouraged from following their example, and they kept their weapons sheathed.
“I dare,” Isenhart said. “Remove your swords and disarm yourselves or my archers continue their work.”
“The gods will curse you for this,” Ingmond spat even as he unbuckled his sword belt and threw it on the table before him with a loud clash.
“Then I shall be the source of my own reward,” Isenhart smiled as his soldiers collected weapons from his guests until all were disarmed. “Now there are two documents we will sign. The first pertains to you, Sir Roderic,” Isenhart continued. “As dragonlord, you have the power to convene the Adalthing under extraordinary circumstances. Such as the lack of an heir to the throne.”
Isenhart clapped his hands again, and a servant entered with a tray. Upon it lay two pieces of parchment, as well as a quill, an inkwell, and red wax. “Sir Roderic will sign this document, which calls for a special assembly of the Adalthing. An assembly that will be held here and now,” the jarl continued, looking around the room. “And then every man in this room who has a voice in the Thing will sign the other document. It declares by the power of the Adalthing that the jarl Isenhart of Isarn is heir to the throne of Adalrik.”