17. Night of the Knife
Night of the Knife
A stunned silence followed the audacity displayed by the jarl Isarn at this proclamation. “This will not stand,” Ingmond finally said furiously. “Firstly, the Adalthing must meet in the hall in the Citadel.”
“Merely a formality. These documents with the correct signatures will serve,” Isenhart retorted.
“Furthermore,” Ingmond roared, “there is not a majority present in this hall.”
“While the lords of Theodstan are absent, their jarl is not. As their liege and in their absence, Theodoric has the power to sign on their behalf,” Isenhart smiled towards the black-clad man standing near Theodwyn.
“Lastly,” Ingmond continued undeterred, “this is unlawful at every level! Forcing the Adalthing weapon in hand undermines the very foundation of the realm! This will not stand,” Ingmond shouted, “this will not stand! The Order, Jarl Vale –”
“Jarl Vale will fall to heel,” Isenhart interrupted, now shouting as well. “As will the Order, as will the rest of you! Unless you wish to have the blood of your children, your families on your hands.”
“You would not dare,” Ingmond said, his voice growing feeble.
“I believe I have already made it clear how far I am willing to go,” Isenhart said with gritted teeth. “As we speak, my soldiers are taking over the city. By morning, I will control Middanhal and the realm. Resisting now will only get you killed. Now, no further delay,” he said and turned towards Sir Roderic. “Sign it.”
“Do not do it,” came a calm insistence from Theodwyn, which made eyes turn towards her. “He is a madman who will fall sooner or later. The more we resist, the faster it will be.”
Isenhart made no reply but drew his sword and placed it over the knight marshal’s shoulder so its tip was by his throat.
“Do not sign it,” Theodwyn repeated. “You are the only man whose signature can legalise that document. Without it, nothing can lend credence to this petty revolt.”
“Silence!” Isenhart exclaimed and pressed his sword edge into the skin on Roderic’s throat. Swallowing, the knight took the quill, dipped it in ink, and signed the authorisation of an extraordinary assembly of the Adalthing. Moving around Roderic but keeping his sword on the knight’s neck, Isenhart moved a lit candle closer. He melted some wax onto the document, grabbed Roderic’s hand, and pressed the signet of the dragonlord into the wax.
“Coward,” Theodwyn sneered. “It were better you had died for the realm,” she claimed, to which the knight said nothing.
“Now,” Isenhart said, “rather than the tedious process of counting voices, I have made it simple. This document,” the jarl gestured to the other parchment on the tray, “declares me heir to the throne. Your signature in presence of witnesses will suffice in lieu of a formal counting.”
“Your plan has failed,” Theodwyn said smiling, “there is not a majority present tonight. Even if every member here of the Adalthing signs, it will not suffice.”
“We have covered this,” Isenhart said impatiently. “I do not need thirty-five members present. Your brother will sign for the seven margraves of Theodstan and that will suffice.”
“Holebert,” Theodwyn said, turning towards the man wearing her brother’s clothes. “Will you stand up and remove your gloves? Let everyone see how many fingers you have on your hands.”
The hall fell silent as Holebert did as commanded. Pulling off his gloves, it was clear to see he had ten fingers.
“While I consider my brother’s ekename to be vulgar, it is useful that he is known as ‘Fourfinger’,” Theodwyn said with cold triumph. “This is your last chance, Isenhart. Abandon this fool scheme, resign your title to your son, and beg the Adalthing not to demand your head.”
“It is too late to turn back,” Isenhart muttered. “Your deception is meaningless. Soon Vale will be brought to me to witness my victory. It will be even more satisfying when it is his submission that seals my ascendance,” the jarl claimed. “Keep them under guard. Kill any who attempt to flee,” he told his soldiers as he left the hall.
With nightfall arriving, the soldiers of Isarn left the manor. One group detached themselves under Ulfrik and went south while the rest moved west under Isenwald and Eumund. There was silence among the men except for a nervous whisper on occasion. The streets were empty, and none questioned the ranks of soldiers marching forward. Finally, they approached the Citadel where it lay close to the northern gate. “Meet you soon, Brother,” Eumund said in farewell to Isenwald, who nodded to his younger sibling. They parted ways, each followed by his lot of soldiers.
Isenwald went straight north towards the Woolgate. There was perhaps a score of men guarding it as well as a small number patrolling the walls. Moonlight illuminated the street, and eventually their approach towards the gate could not be concealed. It did not matter either; they were at least three times as many as the guards, and the fortifications were only intended to protect against assault from the outside. It offered very little when the attackers could walk right up on the walls.
With a nervous hand, Isenwald drew his sword. “Who goes there?” yelled a voice as one of the guards spotted the oncoming soldiers. “Wait, what is this –” came the same voice, breaking off in realisation of the truth. “To arms, to arms!”
“I am sorry,” Isenwald mumbled, too low for any to hear. He ran forward, followed by his men. Some of the Isarn soldiers split off to rush up the stairs and onto the walls, whereas Isenwald continued straight ahead for the soldiers guarding the gate. One of them lowered his spear and stabbed at Isenwald, who turned the spear aside with his blade and embedded its tip in the guard’s armpit. He pulled out the sword, glancing at the red liquid that now hung to it before he turned his eyes to look for his next opponent, but the other guards at the gate had already been slaughtered.
Exhaling and calming himself a bit, Isenwald walked up the stairs to the wall. He could hear the sounds of battle and death as a disjointed symphony, constantly breaking away before it again tore the night sky apart. By his feet lay Order soldiers dead along with a few wearing the coat of Isarn.
One of his father’s thanes came out of the tower by the gate onto the wall and moved over to Isenwald when he spotted him. “It’s ours, milord,” he said. “Barely any resistance.”
“When you have swept the walls, set up a new watch,” Isenwald commanded him. “Any soldiers to spare, send – them to reinforce my brother at the Citadel.”
“Very good, milord,” the thane nodded in acquiescence. “Will you require an escort?”
Isenwald glanced around and shook his head. The thane saluted him and barked orders while Isenwald slowly walked down from the wall. He went back the same way he had just followed here except now he was alone. In his right hand, he still held his bloodied sword, almost dragging it behind him. As he came further east into the city, he was within earshot of more screams; Vale soldiers were being cornered and killed by the warehouses and buildings they guarded. Tonight, Isarn’s knife ruled over Middanhal.
No longer a young man, Quill did not always sleep through the night, and he often woke easily. Thus, when distant sounds woke him this particular night, he remained in bed at first, waiting to fall asleep again. When that did not happen, he got up and fetched some water to drink. It was only when he moved out of his bedroom that he heard further sounds and became aware something was afoot. He walked over to the window, which overlooked the southern courtyard; yet not a shadow stirred, and it told him nothing. Only sounds reached him, mumbled and dampened, incoherent.
Grabbing the latch, Quill pushed the window open, and finally he could hear what had wakened him, the sound of metal clashing against metal, men yelling in fury or screaming in pain. It came from the northern courtyard, hidden from his sight but not his hearing. Almost as an instinctive jerk, Quill pulled the window back and latched it shut. It muted the sounds, giving Quill a moment to think.
Turning away from the window, his eyes fell on the heavy door in the other end of the library hall. He hesitated briefly; then he went to his room and put his robe atop his nightshirt. After that, he gathered what speed he could muster and hastened out of the library tower.
Down in the kitchens, the sounds of battle had reached the servants in their living quarters as well. All were awake, though they reacted in different ways. Some of the servants left their rooms; others barricaded themselves inside and hid under beds or in closets. In one large room were all the kitchen girls, about a dozen or so. The youngest was around ten, the oldest sixteen. The smallest girls were hiding under their covers, while a few others were sitting and holding each other closely. Some were crying, some could not speak. Kate stood against the wall opposite the door with a small knife in her hand. Her eyes were focused on the door, which could not be locked.
Suddenly somebody pushed against the door, and the shock sent more of the girls into tears. All eyes in the room became fixed on the doorway as the door creaked open. It finally revealed the person behind to be Quill. “Kate!” he yelled over the noise of frightened kitchen girls. She dropped her knife in relief, moved forward, turned back, and picked it up again before finally rushing over to Quill by the door.
“Why are you here?” Kate asked breathlessly.
“Came to get you,” Quill said. “Go!” Kate stood indecisively, turning back to look at the other girls. Quill did likewise, his gaze sweeping over the room. “Very well, all of you! With me, now!” he shouted, which seemed to snap the girls out of their stupor. The eldest girls grabbed the youngest, sometimes pulling them out from underneath the beds, and they all ran after Quill as he led them away.
He took them through the corridors of the castle until they reached the south-western part. It was empty; although the kingthanes lived here, they were all gone. Quill hastened up the stairs, followed by the girls, until he reached his tower. Once all were inside, he pushed the great door shut and locked it, turning its heavy key slowly in the creaking lock. “That door was built to withstand fire and axes,” Quill said, panting. “We will be safe here,” he added with only a sliver of doubt creeping into his voice.
Once inside the tower, the girls responded to the situation in a variety of ways. Some succumbed to fear once more, sitting down on the floor and curling up, while some of the others attempted to comfort them. Some succumbed to curiosity, having never seen books before. They touched the leather spines cautiously and glanced over the letters that to them were as mysterious as Dwarven runes. Quill walked over to the window, gazing out over the southern courtyard, which still showed no movement. After scolding a few girls for touching the books, Kate joined him. “Why did you come for me, Master Quill?” she asked.
“You are my apprentice. Of sorts,” Quill added, giving her a vague smile. “I know what happens to girls when castles fall. I do not know what is happening tonight, but no reason to take chances.”
“You don’t know who is fighting?”
Quill shook his head. “No. But I suspect the noblemen, the jarls, are at each other’s throats. And the rest of us suffer for it.”
Kate was quiet a moment and then steered the conversation a step back. “Why did you offer to teach me how to read? It’s not something kitchen girls really need.”
“And Egil said you were not a curious type,” Quill replied with another vague smile. “I suppose it was because – it is a little complicated. You see, when I arrived in this city, I was younger than you were. A friend brought me here, picked me up from the streets of Alcázar, where I lived as an orphan. I know very little of him, but I owe him everything,” Quill said, his eyes turning distant with memory. “He saw something in me. Said I was a good soul,” Quill added with a smile born of remembrance. “He delivered me here to become an apprentice to the old Quill. Gave me a home and a trade. And eventually I succeeded my master.”
Quill turned to glance back into the hall and the tower. “This tower was built secluded, not only to withstand fire and destruction, but also to offer the King’s Quill solitude for his work. And it can be very solitary,” Quill said to Kate, turning to look out the window again. “When I took on Egil as my apprentice, I did as much for the company. And I suppose with him gone these days I felt alone again.” Quill’s expression and eyes became present again, and he turned his head quickly to look at Kate. “There you have it, a very long answer to a short question.”
“I expected nothing else, master,” Kate said, managing a smile before it faded again. “Will everything be well when morning comes?”
“I do not know,” Quill admitted, placing a hand on her shoulder for comfort. “I do not know.”
After having left the hall, Isenhart paced around in the courtyard as he waited for his returning soldiers. The first of these was Isenwald. The jarl frowned at seeing his son arriving unaccompanied and walked over him. “Isenwald, you come alone?” Isenhart asked with a dubious expression.
“When the gate was taken – I sent the remainder – of my men to Eumund,” Isenwald explained. “As you instructed.”
“I see your sword has had work tonight,” Isenhart proclaimed, noticing the blood upon his son’s blade. “Well done, my son,” the jarl said, slapping a heavy hand onto Isenwald’s shoulder. “I knew you would prove tempered when your mettle was tested.” Isenwald did not reply but merely cleaned his blade on his surcoat before he sheathed it.
Briefly after, Ulfrik joined them along with a cadre of his men. “The southern gate is yours, milord,” he told the jarl with a grin, “as is the city.”
“Where are your prisoners?” Isenhart asked with a furrowed brow.
The thane’s smile disappeared. “They were gone, milord. No trace of the jarl or his family.”
“You mean they escaped your grasp?” Isenhart said with increasing ire.
“No, milord,” Ulfrik hastened to say. “We searched their house thoroughly. All the servants said the same thing. The jarl and his family left the city earlier today.”
“How can the fates torment me so? My victory, his defeat so close within reach!” Isenhart exclaimed furiously while Isenwald carefully maintained a blank expression. “I needed Vale to have the Adalthing under my control!”
“There are the other jarls, milord, and the landgraves?” Ulfrik said questioningly.
“A deception,” Isenhart said through gritted teeth. “Theodstan was never here but sent a servant in disguise.”
“Then he is most likely at the Citadel,” Ulfrik spoke, “as well as other noblemen of the Adalthing. We will bring them here in chains, and they will sign the document along with the others.”
“Yes,” Isenhart said, calming down. “Yes, of course. This is but a respite for Vale,” he said, his serenity quickly evaporating as he spoke again. “All the insults he has paid me, the times he has thwarted me, this silkworm upstart, this garlic-stinking southerner, he will bow to me in the end!” the jarl exclaimed.
Before Isenhart could continue his diatribe, his youngest son returned. Whereas both Isenwald and Ulfrik bore few marks of battle save the blood of other people, Eumund had taken numerous cuts and seemed battle worn. He walked without difficulty, however, and showed no signs that his injuries hindered him. Like Ulfrik, he walked in with a small group of his men behind him.
“My son returns,” Isenhart said triumphantly. “A hard battle fought, by the looks of you, but for a great prize as well,” the jarl said. However, Eumund shook his head as he came closer.
“It went wrong,” his son declared, slightly out of breath.
“Speak,” Isenhart commanded with narrowing eyes.
“Our man opened the gate as agreed, and we took the courtyard with ease, killing the few guards. But as the alarm was raised, we found ourselves fighting far more men than we should have,” Eumund said bitterly. “Then the kingthanes joined the fight and tore through our ranks. We were pushed back into the courtyard. I had to call a retreat or lose all my men. I have set a watch around the castle to keep them from sallying out.”
“I did not think it would be you who disappointed me,” the jarl said with a sneer.
“I did what I could! No man could win against such odds,” Eumund argued.
“You lost because of overwhelming numbers,” Isenhart said scornfully. “The excuse of the inept.”
“It is no excuse!” Eumund said with a flare of his father’s temper before it subsided again. “We should have fought a few scores, but they had hundreds defending the keep!”
“Then where did these mysterious extra forces come from?” asked Isenhart with further disdain.
“Maybe,” Isenwald inserted cautiously, “it was the regiments bound for Lake Myr. Do we know – if – they actually left?”
His question evoked silence from the others as gazes shifting blame were exchanged. “Why would they be delayed?” asked the jarl with a shrug, though his voice was less assured.
“Why did we not make sure? Why did we not wait a few more days?” Eumund demanded to know.
“Two jarls have already slipped from my grasp!” Isenhart exclaimed. “Time was against us. It still is,” the jarl added with dismay creeping into his voice.
“Two jarls?” Eumund said quietly to his brother.
“Both Jarl Vale and Theodstan escaped Father’s – iron fist,” Isenwald told him with a lowered voice.
“We needed the Citadel,” Isenhart said, as much to himself as others. “I needed the noblemen to declare me king. I will have it, one way or the other,” he swore and turned to one of his thanes. “Go to the Temple,” he ordered the warrior, “wake the Highfather and tell him he is to crown a king tomorrow.” He turned to the captain of his thanes. “Ulfrik, with me,” the jarl commanded.
With swift steps and followed by Ulfrik as well as his sons, Isenhart returned inside and went to the great hall. The scene was as he left it; his soldiers stood guard over the many men, women, and children, who sat or stood in displays of fear, defiance, anger, or a mixture of all. Isenhart walked straight over to the high table, where the dragonlord Roderic was seated under the watchful gaze of two soldiers. “Grab him and bring him,” Isenhart told Ulfrik, who did as bid.
“Where are you taking me?” Roderic demanded to know.
“The Citadel,” Isenhart said without looking back. “You are going to be my key.”
The last twilight of the evening was long gone when Jarl Isarn approached the gate of the Citadel. He was accompanied by many of his thanes and men, his kinsmen, and Sir Roderic, held in a firm grasp by Ulfrik. Soldiers upon the castle walls readied themselves and shouted cries of alarm as they noticed the oncoming group. Isenhart beckoned his men to keep a distance, however, and yelled for the defenders to bring Captain Theobald out for negotiations.
It took a while to carry the message; meanwhile more soldiers lined the walls, keeping sharp eyes on the soldiers of Isarn. Finally and with uneven steps, the captain of the city guard and commander of the Citadel walked up the stairs. Each pressure exerted on his right leg made it falter a bit, but at last, his face appeared between the crenellations. By his side stood men with spears and archers as well as the knight commander of the remaining regiments.
“What do you want, Isarn?” yelled the captain. He was not particularly tall, especially since his leg meant he could not stand fully upright, and so little more than his head was visible on the battlement.
“Open the gate, and you have my word that none further shall die,” Isenhart shouted back.
“Upon your honour?” asked the captain.
“Upon my honour,” Isenhart swore.
“The same honour that is now tainted by the blood of my men? By this vile, cowardly assault in the dead of night? I spit on your honour, Isarn,” the captain proclaimed and proceeded to spit over the wall.
“I see that I must make threats as well,” Isenhart retorted and beckoned Ulfrik to step forward. The imposing thane brought Roderic with him, still keeping him in an iron grip; when the knight marshal was visible to the defenders, Ulfrik forced him down on his knees. “Open the gates or your leader suffers,” Isenhart said.
“Go ahead,” shouted the captain.
Isenhart blinked in surprise. “Perhaps you need to be convinced of my sincerity,” the jarl said through gritted teeth. “Ulfrik, take his left hand.”
“By the gods, Theobald, open the gates!” yelled Roderic before Ulfrik pushed him to the ground, flat on his belly. The thane placed one heavy foot on Roderic’s left arm, keeping the knight in place while drawing his great battle axe from his back.
“Last chance,” Isenhart warned.
“Father,” Eumund, began but he was silenced by a raised hand from the jarl.
“Do not delay on my account,” Theobald yelled back.
“Are you mad!” Roderic began to shout, but it turned into a scream as Ulfrik swung his axe. A moment later, blood poured out of the stump.
“Open the gate, captain, or I take his other hand,” Isenhart threatened.
“Go ahead,” the captain replied casually. With a furious look, Isenhart gestured to Ulfrik who swiftly repeated his act on Roderic’s right hand.
“Theobald, I will have your head for this!” screamed the knight marshal. “Open the gate, man!”
“Your commander has given you a direct order, captain,” said Isenhart through gritted teeth.
“Like he did when he told all my men to march out of the city?” Theobald asked spitefully.
“His hands are gone, his head is next!” Isenhart exclaimed while Ulfrik placed the axe ready at the neck.
“Father, you are going too far,” Isenwald tried to intercede, but his father was deaf to his objections.
“Another treasonous act to add to your tally,” Theobald scorned him.
“Last chance,” Isenhart warned. “Open the gate or see him dead.”
“Isarn, I will see every last man in this castle dead before I let you step one foot inside!” the captain swore to the jarl.
Clenching his hands in anger, Isenhart nodded to Ulfrik. With one swing of the axe, the knight marshal’s head was separated from his shoulders.
“These negotiations are over,” Theobald shouted. “Archers, shoot at will! Kill as many of these treacherous dogs as you can!” His command seemed to catch everybody by surprise, including his own archers. They quickly recovered, however, and readied arrows. On the ground, the jarl and his followers had to rush away from the open area around the castle, followed by projectiles until they could take cover.
“You killed the knight marshal,” Eumund said a tone of disbelief, “the dragonlord of the realm!”
“He was of no use to us anymore,” Isenhart sneered. “Back to the house,” he added while the defenders shouted and cheered at the sight of the retreating Isarn soldiers.
Returning to the manor, the jarl stormed inside while his sons and thanes struggled to keep up. He burst into the great hall where he would usually sit by the high table when taking counsel. However, a host of bewildered or frightened eyes turned towards him, prisoners and guards alike. “I forgot they were here,” Isenhart mumbled and turned to his steward. “Get these people locked up somewhere,” he ordered his servant.
“But where, milord?” asked the steward nervously. “There are hundreds of them.”
“Then throw them in the stables, or in the courtyard, or your own room, just do it!” the jarl roared. The steward bowed his head and began to issue commands to the guards.
“Have your plans failed, Isenhart?” yelled Theodwyn. Arndis and Eleanor tried to hold her back, tried to silence her, but she stepped forward fearlessly. “How long must this go on before you realise it is futile?”
“Be silent, woman,” Isenhart said savagely, and his own men and sons instinctively shied away. “I killed Roderic, and you will be next!” A shock went through the crowd upon hearing that the dragonlord and knight marshal was dead, and the jarl of Ingmond sank down into his seat.
“I will not be silent!” Theodwyn replied with fury to equal Isenhart’s. “You are tearing the realm apart at a time when we are most vulnerable,” she all but spat into his face. “If none other will tell you the truth, you shall hear it from me. Abandon your mad plots, Isenhart, before the city and the land burn with you.”
Rather than reply, Isenhart struck Theodwyn across the face with the back of his hand. He hit with such force it drew blood from the corner of her mouth, but she did not flinch or stagger; instead she turned back to face him with eyes gleaming. Wiping the blood from her hand, she held it high. “Behold the man who would be king!” she shouted around the hall. “Witness how he strikes an unarmed woman. How far must this go before you will awaken and resist?” she challenged, but nobody replied. The bodies of the slain thanes who had attempted to fight still littered the hall.
Seeing that Theodwyn stood alone, Isenhart gave a sneering smile and turned around. “To my study instead,” the jarl said to his sons and Ulfrik, who followed him there.
Once inside the room, Isenhart poured a drink of brandy and sat down in his chair, taking a heavy sip. None of his sons or the thane spoke. “What a night,” Isenhart finally said, raising one hand to his brow. “We will have to wait until Athelbold arrives with the forces we need to storm the Citadel.”
“Perhaps we should reconsider that,” Eumund said cautiously. “The defenders are prepared and it will be very costly to scale the walls.”
“We have the men,” Isenhart said dismissively. “I want the city fully under my control.”
Before Eumund could object again, a thane arrived, the one who had been sent to the Temple. “Milord,” the warrior bowed before the jarl. “I bring word from the Highfather,” he said hesitantly.
“Yes? Speak, is he prepared to crown me?”
“The Highfather said to tell you,” the thane spoke slowly, “that he can only crown an heir acknowledged by the Adalthing. Until that happens, the crown shall continue to rest in the Crypt of Kings and may not be brought to the Temple for coronation.” His message finished, the soldier carefully backed away several steps.
“Even the priests disobey me!” the jarl said, standing up and spilling his drink. “Perhaps the high priest will be more accommodating with a spear against his back!”
“You do not mean that,” Eumund said appalled.
“Father – that – is blasphemy,” Isenwald protested.
“I do not intend to harm him,” Isenhart replied, “merely add some forceful persuasion. The Adalthing, the captain, the Citadel, they can all rot. If the Highfather places the crown on my head on the Temple stairs in full view of the people, I am king! Regardless of how willingly he crowns me,” the jarl claimed.
“Father, the Highfather has fifty Templars guarding him,” Eumund pointed out.
“Fifty?” Isenhart exclaimed in disbelief. “Why on earth does he have that many surrounding him?”
“To protect him against exactly what you wish to do,” Eumund explained.
“We have plenty of men. Fifty knights will not stop me,” Isenhart declared.
“Father, they are not merely knights, they are Templars. It is their sacred duty to defend that building, which they know inside and out. Fighting in small corridors on their terrain, Templars against our men, it will be a slaughter,” Eumund cautioned. “We will lose twenty men for every Templar before it is through.”
“He’s right,” Ulfrik muttered with a growl, “it will cost us a lot.”
“So?” Isenhart countered. “If it makes me king, who cares for the cost?”
“Father, the Temple halls will run red with blood. The entire city will witness your men attacking the holiest of holies, dragging the Highfather out, violating all that is sanctified,” Eumund explained patiently. “And what if the Highfather still refuses as Captain Theobald did? Will you kill him as well while all watch?”
“Then we must take the Citadel,” Isenhart declared frustrated, “convene the Adalthing, and make it acknowledge me as heir.”
“Father, Vale has escaped. That is where our focus must be. It does not matter what the Adalthing says or for that matter the high priest. Vale will raise the South against us. The crown, the Adalthing, they are formalities at this stage,” Eumund continued his explanation. “Tonight hinged upon capturing the jarls, the noblemen, forcing them to recognise you. With Vale gone, that has failed. This can now only end in war.”
A short silence followed Eumund’s declaration while they digested his words. “Your son is right, my lord,” Ulfrik said in his deep voice. “Vale will never accept you as king unless there’s an axe against his neck. He will fight while he can. We have a war on our hands, and we cannot waste soldiers attacking the Temple or the Citadel.”
“Should I simply accept the Citadel is in hostile hands?” argued Isenhart with a sneer.
“No,” Eumund said, patiently once more, “but we need proper siege equipment to take it, and we need far more troops. The army that Athelbold brings, it must be used to strike south. Before Vale can muster his own army.”
“What – of the – Order?” asked Isenwald suddenly, and the breach of his silence made everyone look at him bewildered before they grasped his words. “If the last regiments never left Middanhal, they will realise something went wrong when they – do not arrive at Lake Myr.”
“Isenwald is right,” Eumund nodded. “And we could use Athelstan.”
“So what is it you want done?” asked Isenhart of his youngest son.
“Let me take Athelbold’s army south. I will get Athelstan and rout the Order army while it still lies in camp. Then I turn west and invade Vale before he can take action,” Eumund explained.
“That army is several thousand strong,” Isenhart argued. “Are you confident that you can defeat the Order and face Vale afterwards?”
“The Order army is not suspecting an attack. With Athelstan returning to our side, its commander disappeared, that army will be in disarray,” Eumund countered. “I do not fear Vale either if Athelstan leads our forces. Numbers are inconsequential. Swift and decisive action is our best ally,” the young knight declared.
“Must you fight the – Order?” asked Isenwald. “If they are under Uncle’s command, maybe… It feels wrong to attack the – Order,” he said as his voice grew distant.
“You heard Captain Theobald’s stubborn refusal, not to mention we decapitated the knight marshal,” Eumund said, shaking his head. “Until this war is won, the Order is our enemy. We must make a swift attack and destroy them before they realise what we have done, before they can be rallied against us,” Eumund argued.
“But Uncle – is there,” Isenwald argued. “Send him a message, tell him to march the army at – once to Hæthiod.”
“What if Vale has sent a message that arrives first?” Eumund said in rejection of Isenwald’s argument. “Or Theodstan? Sir Richard is his vassal, and he commands the army along with Athelstan.” Eumund turned to his father. “We must destroy the Order forces. Let me take Ingmond along as my prisoner, and then we can extort supplies from his province with him as leverage. Afterwards, Athelstan and I will go west and crush Vale.”
“Very well,” Isenhart said, looking around at the others in the room. “Carry out your plan, Eumund. I will go north and muster our remaining levies. I will convince the landgraves to join us and return with the forces to put that arrogant captain’s head on a spike. Isenwald,” the jarl continued, and his eldest son snapped to attention. “I leave you in charge of the city. Strengthen our grip and keep sharp watch over the Citadel that they do not attempt anything.”
It took the jarl’s son a moment to answer. “I shall, Father,” Isenwald promised, though his expression lacked determination.
“Ulfrik will remain by your side to counsel you,” the jarl added. “Do not hesitate to kill the prisoners if the need arises,” he said to the captain of his thane, and the imposing man grumbled in acquiescence.
The men dispersed except for Isenwald, who lingered. Looking out the window, he could see the noblemen, their families, and their disarmed thanes being dragged out into the courtyard. Although Isenwald could not see that far, he gazed north towards where his father’s cousin Athelbold was leading an Isarn army towards Middanhal. There was faint sunlight illuminating the city landscape and the courtyard below as the long night had finally reached its end. It was the dawn of a new day, the dawn of war.