After the jarl of Isarn’s uprising, a period of violence in Middanhal followed. With the city guard being killed or kept back inside the Citadel, chaos ruled the streets. The jarl himself had returned north to his lands in order to finish the muster of all his soldiers. Most of their forces already assembled had departed with Eumund south, leaving only a small garrison of Isarn soldiers to guard the city and its streets, and many of them were spent encircling the Citadel and keeping watch against the remaining Order soldiers. Thus, it took the Isarn forces many days to restore control of the city.
In the meantime, old enmities were revisited and scores were settled, in particular by northern nobles against southern. This was often done with the presumption that the jarl Isarn would not punish such an act once he returned to the capital, nor would or could his son and heir, Isenwald, who for the time being ruled Middanhal in the jarl’s name.
With blood being shed in the holy city of Adalmearc, many looked towards the Temple. Its great doors still stood open, and it remained guarded by the Templar knights; these warriors did not venture forth, however, but remained within the boundaries of the sanctuary. Some of the priesthoods, in particular the norns and their lay brothers who were responsible for tending to the sick and injured, could be found on the streets attempting to aid those wounded in the clashes, but there was little they could do amidst the chaos. Furthermore, in the confusion, sometimes even their robes did not protect them from falling victim as well.
Within the halls of the Temple, there was also bewilderment. Each of the six priesthoods had their own living quarters and their own high priest or priestess, but they shared and mingled freely in the rest of the great domain that made up the Temple complex. There were thus constant discussions back and forth, as each priesthood had its own reaction towards the uprising.
The whiterobes were strongly in favour of grabbing their hammers, all to a man, going out onto the streets, using their favoured instruments on everybody with a weapon, and letting the gods decide the rest. Being very few in numbers, however, they showed unusual restraint and had so far restricted themselves to merely considering the idea.
The greenrobes, also few in numbers, were mostly worried about the waterways and aqueducts that supplied the Temple and its gardens with water. They argued in favour of sending the Templars out to safeguard the constructions that diverted part of the river into the Temple reservoirs; the geolrobes supported this. The blackrobes were divided; nominally speaking, the Temple was their institution above all, and they were by far the most numerous of the six priesthoods in Middanhal. Some of them felt as the whiterobes did, while others, more peacefully inclined, wanted to close the Temple doors and wait it all out. Their high priest seemed undecided and had not spoken for or against any of the suggestions.
Regardless, although the blackrobes were strongest represented, they were only one out of the priesthoods, and the high priest of Rihimil could not speak nor command the other orders. There was only one person with the authority to do so, wearing an unadorned robe of grey hue, who so far had been silent. Like all the others in the Temple, this grey-robed priest lived in a simple cell; while the other priesthoods had their assigned living quarters, however, this cell was set apart from the rest. It lay very close to the Hall of Holies, near the heart of the Temple and the hill upon which it was built.
A knock was heard upon the door to the cell; from inside, a voice gave permission to enter. As the door opened, it revealed the entirety of the chamber. It was a small room with nothing more than a simple bed and drawers on which stood a bowl of water and a candle providing light. On the bed was sitting an old man in a linen tunic; in his hands he held a grey robe and sewing tools used to mend a tear. Around his neck could be seen a thin silver chain; its pendant was the holy symbol of his office, though he wore it against his skin underneath the tunic.
“Brother Septimus,” came the greeting from the person entering. It was a woman of some fifty years, probably a decade younger than the old man sitting on the bed; while his robe was grey and unadorned, hers was deep red with a black raven embroidered upon it. Furthermore, the patterns showed her to be the high priestess of her order in Middanhal.
“Sister Adilah, to what do I owe the pleasure?” asked the Highfather as he raised his eyes to greet her, though his fingers did not stop meticulously sewing the rift in his robes. While his face and dialect hinted of Korndale, Adilah was more diverse. She had the slightly sonorous dialect of the natives of Ealond, whereas her name and appearance spoke of Alcázar, the same as Quill.
“I have come to ask, Holy One,” the priestess began to speak, and the reverence of her choice of words was gainsaid by her stern tone of voice, “whether you would speak to the orders here at the Temple and instruct us on what to do.”
“I did not realise such was necessary,” the aged Septimus said calmly, returning his gaze to his mending.
“It is. We need your voice to cut through the noise,” Adilah insisted.
“How so? What is happening?”
“Nothing,” Adilah stressed. “It has been days of violence, and we are doing nothing about what is taking place in the city.”
“Then there is no need for me to speak,” Septimus said in his undisturbed voice.
“On the contrary,” Adilah urged. “There are hundreds of priests and priestesses at the Temple. If we armed ourselves –”
“I am the spiritual leader of these people,” Septimus cut in, “not their captain of war. It is not my place to command them, certainly not to take up arms.”
“Then the Templars,” Adilah suggested, her voice retaining all of its insistence. “They will do whatever you ask. All fifty of them could storm Jarl Isarn’s house, free the captives.”
Septimus raised his eyes to gaze at the priestess. “It is the task of the Order to maintain the peace of the realm, not the task of this Temple,” he said serenely. “It is not within my authority to make such decisions.”
“But the Templars are knights of the Order,” Adilah countered, placing her hands on her hips. “Surely it is their duty to fight and liberate the city.”
“If so, the Order must make the decision and give the command,” Septimus continued, finishing his needlework. “Not I.”
“Why not you, Brother Septimus?” the norn asked with narrowed eyes. “There are none others who can, none others to resist. Surely your duty –”
“My duty,” the Highfather said as he stood, “is to this Temple.” He placed a hand against the wall, touching the stonework. Standing up evened some of the height difference between them, but he still had to look up. Despite the physical disadvantage, the old man met her gaze with confidence. “This is hallowed ground, and I have a sacred trust to protect these halls no matter what. For a thousand years, my predecessors have kept this charge. I will not be the one to throw it away, attacking the jarl’s forces and giving him cause to attack this Temple in turn,” Septimus said pointedly.
“What good is this Temple if we are powerless to stop these rebels, these villains?” Adilah retorted furiously, unimpressed by her superior’s speech.
“This very hill is the foundation of the Seven Realms,” Septimus said, his words spoken as calmly as Adilah’s were spoken with passion. “If we must endure this temporal evil to preserve the permanent sanctity of this Temple, so be it. Now I must ask you to grant me privacy. I wish to pray alone.”
Adilah was on the verge of further objections, but she remained silent, turned on her heel, and left. Behind her, the aged high priest sat down on the bed again, and one hand dug under his tunic to pull out the symbol of his office. It was a seven-pointed star made from heavy iron, which he held in his grasp as he sat; he breathed deeply as his knuckles turned white from gripping the pendant. Exhaling, Septimus rose and walked over to turn the key in the door to his room. Once it was locked, he put on his grey robes. Then, steeling himself for the exertion, he pulled and pushed his bed away along with the carpet on which it stood.
Once the floor had been uncovered, a small hatch revealed itself. Kneeling by it, Septimus removed his necklace before inserting the pendant into the trap door. Once in place, he could turn the seven-pointed symbol and unlock it, allowing him to open the hatch. It revealed a staircase disappearing into the depths of the ground. Getting up, Septimus took the lit candle from its place on the drawers and made his descent.
From the outside, the Isarn manor seemed almost desolate with only a few guards by the gate and walls. Most of their soldiers were concentrated in the city, restoring order to the streets or maintaining the siege around the Citadel, which was still held by the Order’s forces. Inside the various buildings of the Isarn compound, however, there were plenty of people. More than a hundred prisoners from the feast, ranging from landgraves, margraves, and their families to thanes and servants unfortunate enough to have been present. Those of common birth had been thrown together in the larger halls, while those of higher standing had been given guest rooms. Space was still scarce, though, so they were forced to share rather than having their own, private room, as they were accustomed to.
In one of these improvised cells, situated on the top floor with a window overlooking the courtyard, the noblewomen Theodwyn, Arndis, and Eleanor had been confined. It was not by accident they were roomed together. The other hostages had been divided according to rank to different parts of the house; as the sister to the jarl of Theodstan, Theodwyn was of greater value than Arndis and Eleanor, who did not have relatives of any importance. However, Theodwyn had grabbed the hands of the other two and refused to be separated from them in another display of disdain for the weapons of the Isarn soldiers. The steward of the house, having enough matters to deal with, had readily conceded rather than expend energy on forcing the issue. Despite this small victory, the mood inside the room was low. By the door was a small drawer, on which stood a vase with withering flowers.
“I feel like those flowers look,” Theodwyn muttered darkly.
“Anything happening?” Eleanor asked, sitting on the bed. Her question was directed at Arndis, who was standing by the window.
“Nothing. The yard is empty,” Arndis replied, though that did not make her abandon her post, and she continued to gaze out, scrutinising everything within view.
“It has been four days,” Theodwyn remarked, pacing back and forth irregularly. “Which means today is Laugday. Yet these brutes do not offer us water, no baths. I have never been so poorly treated!”
“I would die for a bath,” Eleanor said dreamingly.
“We are not guests,” Arndis pointed out, “but prisoners. I do not think they would offer us the same hospitality.”
“It is Laugday,” Theodwyn reiterated. “It is our gods-granted right to have a bath. Even the lowliest servant will have that luxury today, and we shall not?” she complained.
“The jarl does not strike me as a man who listens to complaints,” Eleanor said quietly. She was not wearing her customary veil, and she was absent-mindedly tracing the scars on her cheek with her fingers.
“The jarl is not here,” Arndis mentioned, turning to look at the other women. “I saw him leave the morning after the feast, and I have seen no sign of his return.”
“Who is in charge of the city then?” Theodwyn pondered. “He must have left someone.”
“I hope it is not that brutish thane of his,” Eleanor shuddered. “He gives me a creeping sensation down my spine.”
“His son,” Arndis said. “I have seen him a few times entering or leaving the house.”
“Some knight that son turned out to be,” Theodwyn all but spat. “Forsaking his vows mere days after taking them.”
“Not Eumund,” Arndis said tonelessly. “The eldest son, I forget his name.”
“Isenwald,” Theodwyn remarked thoughtfully. “He is of a different breed than his father.”
“Really? I would have thought all these Isarn swartlings were the same,” Eleanor commented.
“No, Isenwald is something quite else,” Theodwyn added contemplatively. “I think he may be more amiable towards requests,” she finished her thought.
She walked over and opened the door to the hallway. Looking outside, she was quickly spotted by a guard, who hurried down the corridor. “Get back inside,” he barked as he approached with a spear in hand.
“I wish to see your master,” Theodwyn said, taking a step outside. “You will take me to him.”
“Hel I will,” the guard laughed with a sneer.
“I am Theodwyn, sister to the jarl of Theodstan,” she said angrily. “How dare you refuse me!”
The guard raised the blunt end of his spear, threatening to use it as a staff to push Theodwyn back. “You’re all some nobleman’s wife or child up here,” he said indifferently. “I don’t care if you’re Sigvard himself come back in the flesh, you stay in your room.”
Theodwyn did her best to stare the guard down, but he stood his ground and would not let her pass; finally realising he was adamant, she gave a huff and stepped inside, slamming the door. “Vile little man,” the jarl’s sister burst out. “How dare he!”
“Sigvard,” Arndis said slowly, looking at the now closed door while Eleanor retreated a few steps from Theodwyn’s fury.
“What?” Theodwyn exclaimed.
“Even if you were Sigvard in the flesh. That is what he said,” Arndis repeated. “What if he did face Sigvard?”
“Arndis, are you well?” Eleanor asked concerned.
The young woman did not answer her companion but simply walked over and opened the door, stepping out into the hallway. The guard, who had barely had time to walk away, immediately turned around. “Get back, you!” he all but shouted.
“I am Arndis,” she said calmly, “of House Arnling.”
“Don’t care if you’re Hel in a dress,” the guard said with contempt. “Get back inside now,” he said, raising his spear in a threatening manner; this time, he was pointing the sharp end at the noblewoman.
“I am a descendant of Arn, descendant of Sigvard,” Arndis continued, her tone of voice retaining its calmness.
“You could be my mother and I’d still stick this – what?” The guard had been on the verge of tapping his spear point into Arndis’ stomach, but he cut off both his own gesture and sentence.
“I am a descendant of Sigvard. My blood is sacrosanct,” Arndis explained to him as she moved one hand near the spearhead. “Do you know what will happen to you if you spill the blood of Sigvard?”
The guard swallowed, taking a step back; Arndis followed him, stepping forward and now lightly touching the steel of the spear. “Stay back,” the guard mumbled, but his body was frozen as if Arndis’ touch upon his spear had rendered him paralysed.
“You will take me to your lord,” Arndis stated. “You will do so now.”
“Fine,” the guard relented, “fine. I’ll do it, just don’t…” He did not finish speaking, but Arndis removed her hand from his spear point. As the guard turned around to lead the way, Arndis let out a deep breath. For a moment, her expression turned to relief before she composed herself and followed the guard down the corridor.
Isenwald sat in his father’s study, occupying the jarl’s chair. The heir to the jarldom of Isarn was looking at the desk with a map of the city; upon it lay small figurines taken from the nearby chess set, acting as crude markers for the deployment of their forces. The sixteen white pieces were scattered around the city, some by the gates and the rest in a ring around the Citadel. Inside were placed several black pieces to signify the Order forces still holding the fortress.
“What – did my father’s message say?” Isenwald asked, looking up at Ulfrik. The captain of Isarn’s thanes was standing on the other side of the desk, looking down on the map.
“Another month and the jarl will be here,” Ulfrik said in his growling voice. “We can make our assault then. But we should begin to make preparations for it already now.”
“Should we not focus – our efforts on securing Lowtown first?” Isenwald asked. “I hear – there are riots everywhere.”
“Just peasants and commonborn people bleeding each other out,” Ulfrik said dismissively. “It is not worth spending our efforts on as long as they stick to Lowtown.”
“But – is – it not – our responsibility –” Isenwald began to say haltingly.
“Your father cares about the Citadel, not Lowtown,” Ulfrik interrupted brusquely.
“As you say,” Isenwald conceded.
The steward entered, bringing a meal on a tray to Isenwald. “Thank you,” the young nobleman said, nodding to the servant.
“My pleasure, milord. I came to ask you about some of the – guests,” the steward said, a tad nervous.
“Not now,” Ulfrik interjected. “His lordship and I have other things to discuss first.”
“Of course, milord,” the steward was quick to say, followed by a bow.
Before anything further could be said, however, a guard appeared in the open doorway; behind him stood Arndis. As they arrived, it became clear that the guard was unsure how to proceed. Seeing his masters, the words died in his throat, and he stood indecisively in the doorway, neither entering nor leaving.
Ulfrik ended the guard’s uncertain misery as the thane walked over with a scowl. “What in Hel’s name are you doing? Get that prisoner back to her room,” he sneered. “Enough with these interruptions.”
“Yes, master,” the guard stammered, “it’s just, she said she was dragonborn, well, not that exactly, but I wasn’t sure what to do –”
“Are you more useless than the arses on Hel’s horse?” Ulfrik nearly roared into the guard’s face. “Your only task is to keep the prisoners in their rooms, how is that beyond you?”
“Pardon me, master,” the guard said, “I was afraid if I cut her, she’d bleed, there were those two sent wood-walking once because they hurt…” his stream of words died as Ulfrik sent him an incredulous glance.
“She is a prisoner. She has no power to do anything. Nor does any other dragonborn,” the thane said with gritted teeth. “You could cut her head off, kick it down the street, and no one would care,” Ulfrik yelled.
“If you will excuse me,” Arndis cut in, “I came to speak with your lord, not you,” she said, looking past Ulfrik and into the room where Isenwald sat.
“You will march straight back or I swear to Hel I’ll grind my axe on your teeth,” Ulfrik said threateningly, moving one hand behind his back to where his weapon was strapped.
“Ulfrik,” Isenwald said, raising his voice as well as standing up. “She – is here now, let her speak.”
Ulfrik turned to look at Isenwald; the thane’s expression was indecipherable, somewhere between anger and disbelief. At length he stepped aside, remaining silent as Arndis stepped forward.
“Yes, my lady?” Isenwald said questioningly.
“Today is Laugday,” Arndis began to explain. “None of us, your guests,” she said slowly, choosing her words with care, “have taken a bath in a week. Since we are enjoying your hospitality indefinitely, we are wondering…”
“Of course,” Isenwald said in acquiescence, “I would not – dream – of – denying you your comforts – on Laugday. Oswald,” he continued, looking at his steward. “Make sure something – is arranged for – our guests. Let – the lady have whatever she needs.”
“Very well, milord,” Oswald bowed, disappearing out of the room.
“Thank you, my lord,” Arndis said kindly to Isenwald. “I shall return to my room now,” she added, glancing at Ulfrik before she left under escort from the guard.
A few hours later, there was a knock on the door to where Arndis, Theodwyn, and Eleanor were kept imprisoned. Outside stood a servant, who led them to the baths in the manor. It was down in the servants’ quarters even though those of higher standing usually took their Laugday baths in their own chambers. If any of the women were bothered by this, all such thoughts were dispelled at the sight of hot water in large stone vessels, from which steam rose.
They quickly undressed and entered the water while female servants flittered about, collecting their clothes and occasionally exchanging the water in the vessels when it lost heat. The bath did its task exemplary; the tension felt by all three women could be seen dissipating, and their limbs as well as their concerns relaxed even if only for a while. For the first time in days, they could smile again, even laugh.
At length they were finished and dried themselves while sorting through the spare clothes laid out for them by the servants, measuring and trying to find the best fit. They were still in the process when a young woman entered with a small boy, two years old at the most. Although their clothes showed signs of having been worn for days, it was obviously of a rich cut, marking them as nobility.
“Forgive me, I did not realise it was occupied,” the woman quickly said.
“No matter,” Arndis said in a friendly manner, turning around with the clothes she had selected for herself. “We were about to leave.”
“I am Lady Theodwyn, sister to the jarl of Theodstan,” Theodwyn introduced herself before finally choosing between the black pieces of attire available.
“Lady Eleanor of Tothmor,” Eleanor said, quickly placing her veil over her face.
“Lady Richilde of Ingmond,” the woman replied, inclining her head. “My son, Raymond, like his father.”
“Arndis of House Arnling,” Arndis said as the last. “You have a beautiful son,” she added courteously.
“Thank you,” Richilde smiled and began disrobing; reaching her underdress, she stopped and placed one hand on her stomach. Her smile was briefly disturbed by an expression of concern caught by Theodwyn.
“You are with child,” the tall woman said, directing her scrutinising gaze towards Richilde’s slightly curved stomach.
“Yes,” the jarlinna replied, biting her lip for a moment.
“And you are worried,” Theodwyn continued.
“Yes,” Richilde acknowledged. “I have no specific cause to be, merely that the circumstances are a bit distressing,” she said, glancing towards some of the servants in the room. “And I miss my husband. They took him away,” she added quietly.
“What if one of the norns visited you? She could examine you and assure you everything is as it should be,” Arndis suggested.
“That would be wonderful,” Richilde said with relief. “Do you think that would be permitted?”
“Let us find out,” Arndis said, returning the smile and gesturing for one of the servants. “Find the steward of the house and tell him I should wish to speak with him.”
“Yes, milady,” the servant girl answered and hurried out the door.
“Raymond, no,” Richilde said sternly as the little boy, who had climbed onto a chair, was now reaching out towards Eleanor’s veil.
“No harm done,” Eleanor’s voice came softly from behind the cloth, though she took a step backwards and out of the boy’s reach. “He is very handsome,” Eleanor remarked after a pause as Richilde grabbed the boy, pulled him down from the chair, and began to undress him.
“Thank you,” the jarlinna beamed a smile. “I cannot wait to see him grow up, become like his father. I have prayed nearly every day at our temple in Inghold that he may thrive.”
They were interrupted by a soft knock on the door. “Milady, you wished to see me?” a voice was heard through the door.
“Indeed,” Arndis said as she opened the door slightly ajar, protecting the modesty of the other women. “The jarlinna of Ingmond wishes for a norn to examine her and her unborn child when possible,” she explained.
“Of course,” the steward said. “I will send a request to the Temple.”
“Perhaps afford others the same courtesy? There may be others of your guests that have need of speaking with the norns,” Arndis suggested.
“I will make arrangements,” the steward promised, and Arndis closed the door again.
“Thank you,” Richilde said with deep-seated gratitude in her voice.
“It was no trouble at all,” Arndis said graciously as she and her two companions finished dressing themselves and returned to their room.
Since Laugday was not dedicated to any of the gods, fewer people came to the Temple and the Hall of Holies to give offerings or pray. The priests and priestesses therefore usually carried out many minor duties on this day, typically finishing by taking their baths. The norns, the most numerous of the orders in Middanhal except for the blackrobes, were often busier than most. Apart from their regular duties, people were still giving birth, falling ill, or dying regardless of which day of the week it was, which meant that there were constantly norns leaving to attend to patients. Their lay brothers shouldered some of that burden, but they were still sufficiently shorthanded that every red-robed member of the Order of the Raven, even the high priestess herself, spent Laugday tending to chores.
One part of the great Temple complex was the washing room. Using water guided from the river into the Temple, the priests and priestesses could wash their clothes. Adilah was tending to this with a few of her acolytes when another came bearing a message. While her younger sisters in the order were chatting and laughing, the high priestess had been quiet, contemplative, and it took her a moment to register that someone was speaking to her.
“Yes?” the norn replied at length.
“Someone came with a message,” the acolyte told her nervously. “They wait for a reply.”
“Well?” Adilah asked impatiently as she let go of the wet fabric in her hands and stood up.
“It is from the Isarn house,” her young sister explained. “They’re asking the norns to come and attend to their guests. Make sure they are all well.”
“They are asking us to come to them? Enter their house?” Adilah asked, sounding a little incredulous.
“That’s what I understood,” the acolyte said, fidgeting with her robe. “Are we going to say no? I would have thought it’s our duty to help them if they are in need.”
“No, no, we will go,” Adilah reassured her. “Tell them we will arrive tomorrow with both sibyls and lay brothers to attend to all their needs,” the high priestess informed the younger woman, who nodded and disappeared. Adilah returned to her clothes, washing them with slow motions and a pensive expression on her face.
The following day was Rilday. Dedicated to Rihimil, the patron deity of Adalrik, it was as popular a day for Temple visits as Laugday was not. Already early in the morning, crowds were gathering to give offerings when Adilah and her entourage of fellow priestesses and lay brothers left the Temple. Order had been restored to most of the city except for Lowtown, and many citizens were seizing the chance to worship now that the streets were relatively safe.
Choosing to leave the Temple through a smaller door, the group of norns and lay brothers managed to avoid most of the people moving towards the Temple square. Since they were expected at the Isarn manor, the guards let them pass the gate with little trouble; five norns and six lay brothers entered, and they were guided by the residents to where their potential patients were.
Eventually there was a knock on the door to the room where Arndis, Theodwyn, and Eleanor stayed. The latter veiled herself while Theodwyn bid the person knocking to enter. A young woman, dressed in the red robes of the norns, cautiously opened the door and peeked inside. “I am Sister Constance,” she introduced herself. “Are any of your ladyships in need of my aid?”
“Not as such,” Theodwyn replied. “But we should welcome to hear tidings from the city,” she added, beckoning the priestess to step inside. “We have not heard anything for days.”
“As you wish,” the norn said, stepping inside. She glanced nervously at the corridor from where guardsmen could be heard talking idly before she closed the door behind her. “What do you want to know?”
“What can you tell us?” Theodwyn responded. “What has happened in the city? How have the plans of Jarl Isarn advanced?”
“The city is quiet for now,” Constance said, her eyes shifting from person to person. “Except Lowtown. There are riots, they say. Few of us have left the Temple since this all started, I do not know much,” she admitted.
“But the jarl rules the city uncontested?” Theodwyn asked impatiently.
“Yes. Except for the Citadel,” Constance added. “They are besieging it, but it is still held by the Order.”
“That is good news, is it not?” Eleanor said, her voice sounding soft behind the veil. “That means their control of the city is tenuous.”
“Indeed it is,” Theodwyn smiled triumphantly. “Add to that the Order forces at Lake Myr and we will be freed soon enough.”
“Oh,” Constance uttered as a shadow fell across her face. “Messengers arrived late last night. A battle was fought.”
“And?” Theodwyn urged her.
“Word is that Sir Athelstan destroyed the Order army at Myr. They are scattered in the wind or dead,” the norn said quietly.
“He does not deserve that title anymore,” Theodwyn sneered, but there was little strength in her anger. “Thank you, Sister Constance,” she mumbled. “You may leave us.” The sister bowed her head and left quickly. “Damn them,” Theodwyn muttered, “damn all the spawns of Isarn to Hel’s pit.”
“Surely this is only a temporary misfortune,” Eleanor tried to assure Theodwyn as she removed her veil and her voice came clearer. “The Order and its knights are too strong to ever lose.”
“I have not spoken of this in case anybody was listening, but it does not matter any longer,” Theodwyn said to her young companion. “My brother rode to Lake Myr. That was the reason for our deception at the feast. He is not in the Citadel. It was our hope he could warn them in time, have Athelstan arrested, bring the army back to Middanhal.”
“You knew?” Eleanor exclaimed. “You knew what the jarl was planning to do?”
“We did,” Theodwyn nodded. “All for naught. There are no Order forces left in Adalrik now. It is why I urged you not to attend the feast that night,” she continued as she turned to look at Arndis; further words were stuck in her throat as she saw the expression on her companion’s face. Arndis had moved to sit down on a corner chair in the room; she was staring straight ahead, her eyes unfocused.
“Arndis?” Eleanor said slowly, cautiously approaching her friend. “Are you not well?”
“My brother was at Lake Myr,” she said with little more than a whisper. “He was going with the army to Hæthiod.”
“Oh,” Eleanor said, unable to find other words as she clasped her hands together.
“He was Athelstan’s squire, was he not?” Theodwyn interjected, her ordinarily harsh voice turned softer. “Perhaps he was not with the army. Perhaps he joined Athelstan and the Isarn forces instead.”
“Are those my choices?” Arndis exclaimed, her eyes watery. “My brother is either dead or a traitor?” When neither of the other two spoke, she continued. “He was the only family I had left. I am all alone once more. I have no one.”
“You are not alone,” Eleanor said, finally grabbing Arndis’ hand and squeezing it to console her.
Arndis swallowed the emotions stuck in her throat and pulled her hands free. Standing up, she wiped her eyes dry. “It is no matter,” she said, walking over to the small window to gaze out at the courtyard. “I am Arndis of House Arnling. I will bear what I must.”
Some hours later, the norns and lay brothers could be witnessed crossing the courtyard and leaving the Isarn manor, five red robes and six brown. Most of the day passed with little out of the ordinary; as the first evening bell rang, however, there was suddenly commotion and heavy boots running in every direction both inside and outside the buildings.
In the entrance hall, Ulfrik came in from the courtyard with his customary large axe on his back and harsh look in his eyes. They glanced around, searching for the source of the disturbance. A soldier came running from another hall; as Ulfrik spotted him, he raised his hand to command the other’s attention. “Ernulf,” he called out, and the soldier hastened to where Ulfrik stood.
Ernulf was armed and wearing the surcoat with Isarn’s red and black colours. Yet he also wore a heavy silver necklace and his sword hilt was laid with gold, marks of wealth that revealed his status as a thane rather than a common soldier. “Captain,” Ernulf said, out of breath.
“Speak up,” Ulfrik said brusquely.
“Some of the prisoners have escaped. The landgrave of Beaumont and his wife. We are checking the rest,” Ernulf explained.
“How?” Ulfrik’s eyes narrowed.
“Damn norns,” Ernulf uttered. “Gave their robes to the prisoners and put on their clothes instead. They marched right out of here, pretending to be a lay brother and a priestess.”
“I told the guards to be watchful, to be present!” Ulfrik exclaimed angrily.
“They slipped,” Ernulf acknowledged. “Didn’t stay vigilant. We only found out because a servant saw that the woman dressed as the landgrave’s wife was actually one of the norns who entered earlier.”
“Take the thanes,” Ulfrik commanded, “go to the Temple, and demand our prisoners returned.”
“What if they have slipped from the city already?” Ernulf enquired.
“Then you demand every red-robed hag involved to be handed over to us,” Ulfrik said coldly. “I will deal with the guards responsible,” he added menacingly.
“Should we inform the jarl’s son?”
“Leave that in my hands. You have your task, go,” Ulfrik commanded and turned away, leaving to attend to his own purpose.
It was approaching nightfall when twenty thanes of Isarn along with a larger number of common soldiers marched up the steps towards the Temple. All were heavily armed; their expressions were grim rather than pious. As they reached the top of the stairs and the small plateau with its columns in front of the entrance, the two Templars reacted; they stepped forward towards Ernulf, the leader of the warriors.
“The Highfather has forbidden any weapons being brought onto Temple grounds,” one of the Templars told him. Inside the opening past the great doors, priests and commoners were gathering, watching with both fear and fascination at the confrontation.
“Convenient,” Ernulf sneered. “But we have a matter to settle. Unless the two of you want to see your own innards, step aside.”
“We are Templars,” the other knight said. Both had their hands on the hilt of their swords, though they were keeping them sheathed so far. “We will fight any foe we must in accordance to our sacred duty as protectors of this place. You will not set foot inside the Temple.”
“You have people in there that belongs to us,” Ernulf roared. “You will hand them over to us, or we will take them by our own hand!”
“There are fifty Templars defending this place,” the first knight retorted. “Do you really favour your odds against such a force? Not even with ten times as many could you hope to prevail.”
“You boast,” Ernulf said with a wolf’s smile, “but I doubt you have the bite.”
While this took place, some of the priests and priestesses had run inside; one of them went straight towards where the norns were, seeking out the high priestess. “Sister Adilah, Sister Adilah,” she called out until the bronze-skinned woman appeared.
“What is the cause of this shouting?” the elder norn said as she appeared from a room.
“Isarn’s men are here,” the younger priestess gasped. “They want the prisoners, the ones we brought here.”
“Sister? What is happening?” asked a woman dressed as one of the nobility. “Are they taking us back?”
“Nothing to fear, my lady,” Adilah responded. “You and Lord Beaumont have sanctuary here, you will not be handed over.”
“But what if they attack?” the woman asked anxiously.
“Then the Templars will repel them. In fact, we should only hope they would be stupid enough to try,” Adilah reassured the lady of Beaumont. A pensive expression flittered across the priestess’ face; she turned towards the sister who had brought her the news. “Are they at the front entrance? Isarn’s men, along with the Templars?”
“Yes, Sister,” the priestess nodded. “They looked like they are coming to blows.”
“Stay here,” Adilah commanded the norns, acolytes, and novices as she hurried out of their quarters.
Moving towards the Hall of Holies and the front gate, Adilah found the corridors full of people running about. Some were headed towards the commotion like herself; others fled from it. Most of these people were wearing robes, but a few wore the armour and surcoat of the Templars, a white ash tree on black. All of the knights were moving in the same direction as Adilah, gathering towards the great entrance.
The Hall of Holies was full of people whispering and talking nervously, creating a sound like a horde of locusts had been loosened inside the building. The Templars moving to reinforce easily cut through the crowd, however, and filtered out onto the plateau in front of the doors. Following in their wake, Adilah reached the small area at the top of the stairs. Swords were drawn now on both sides, but so far, neither had made the first move.
“There! That one, she was there this morning! Bring her here!” Ernulf exclaimed as he spotted Adilah, easily recognisable. The thane tried to move forward to reach her, but the Templars kept him from reaching the top stairs. “I will not ask again,” Ernulf sneered with gritted teeth, sword in hand. “Stand aside.”
“Or what?” Adilah’s voice rang out. She stepped forward onto the plateau until she was near the top of the stairs; there were now only a few Templars between her and the Isarn soldiers. “You will attack? You will defile this Temple? You are not the masters of this place,” she said defiantly with eyes blazing. “Attack if you dare!”
The murmurs of the armed men surrounding the place were rising to a storm as were tempers. Shouts came from the thanes and soldiers gathered up the stairway towards the Temple entrance, and Ernulf glanced back. A readiness for violence could be read in their faces.
“What is this?” A voice broke through the noise; it belonged to an old man sounding frail, but he spoke with confidence. A short figure pushed its way through the many robes and reached the small area in front of the entrance. He wore a grey robe, unadorned and yet granting him authority that made all move out of his way.
Silence fell as Septimus spoke; none seemed to know what to answer the high priest. He moved until he stood where the stairs reached the plateau, standing between the two Templars who had been arguing with Ernulf. The thane was standing a step lower on the stairway, meaning he and the high priest were on eye level.
“Do you know who I am?” Septimus asked. His voice carried no arrogance or severity; he posed the question very simply as if he were asking about the time of the day.
“Yes,” Ernulf muttered with a displeased expression, lowering his eyes slightly rather than meeting the priest’s gaze.
“I am the Highfather of Saelnar,” Septimus said, ignoring that Ernulf had given a positive answer. “I am the one servant to the Alfather, Lord of All,” he continued. As before, there was no anger or pride in his tone of voice, merely a statement of facts. “And you are pointing a sword at me,” Septimus finished, and Ernulf quickly looked down at his blade; its tip almost touched the grey, coarse fabric of the high priest’s robe. Ernulf lowered the sword until it pointed down into the ground.
“You have people who belong to us,” Ernulf spoke, raising his eyes. “I am to bring them back with me.”
“This Temple stands on hallowed ground,” Septimus said, raising his eyes and his voice slightly so that both encompassed the other Isarn soldiers on the stairs. “It has been so for near eleven hundred years, as far back as we know.”
“And we want the red-robes who did this,” Ernulf continued, trying to command the Highfather’s attention. “We want her!” he said with anger, gesturing towards Adilah.
“Except for those who have committed crimes in the eyes of the gods, it is a sanctuary to all,” Septimus added, still speaking to all those assembled. “No weapons may be drawn there but those sanctified to divine service. No blood may be spilled unless it be the blood of sacrificial animals.”
“Lord Beaumont and his wife,” Ernulf attempted to interrupt Septimus.
The high priest did not let himself be interrupted. “To break the sanctuary of the Temple, to draw weapons in its holy halls, to spill blood upon its hallowed ground,” Septimus continued, raising his voice further and overruling Ernulf’s attempt to disrupt his flow of words, “would thrice over invoke the wrath of the Seven and Eighth. I would not wish that upon any man,” the Highfather finished, looking directly at Ernulf as he spoke the last words.
For a moment, a contest of wills took place between the battle-hardened thane and the unarmed priest. Finally, Ernulf looked away and glanced back at the men following him; their faces showed a variety of emotions, but uncertainty seemed prevalent. With a scoff, Ernulf sheathed his sword, turned, and walked away hastily, followed by the other thanes and the soldiers.
Audible sighs of relief could be heard as the tension evaporated and the Templars sheathed their swords. “Sister Adilah, with me,” Septimus said as he turned to walk back inside the Temple. The priestess had stood amazed for a moment, but she gathered her wits and turned to follow him. “I presume it is true, what they said?” Septimus asked while still looking straight ahead as he crossed the hall.
“Something had to be done,” Adilah said in defence of her actions.
“And your presence now? I heard your words,” the priest told her. “It sounded as if you were deliberately trying to goad them into attacking the Templars.”
“If they had, the Templars would have cut down the lot of them,” Adilah declared. “The rest of the city would have followed, rising against these usurpers.”
“And when Jarl Isarn returns with an army from the north?” Septimus continued, still gazing ahead. “When we become sheep for slaughter? What do you intend then?”
“How do you know his whereabouts?” Adilah asked. “Or that he is bringing an army with him?”
“That matters not,” Septimus said curtly as he stopped walking. “What matters is that you endangered this Temple. If you ever do so again, if you step foot outside the Temple grounds without my leave, I will have you disrobed.” As he spoke the last sentence, Septimus finally turned his eyes to look directly at Adilah. “Understood? Good,” he added without waiting for her reply. He walked away, leaving her to compose herself.
With his men, Ernulf returned to the Isarn house and searched briefly until he found Ulfrik. “Captain,” he spoke, gaining the other man’s attention.
“Where are they?” Ulfrik growled.
“The priests wouldn’t hand them over. Templars stopped me,” Ernulf muttered.
“You should have taken them, not asked for them,” Ulfrik roared angrily.
“How long would my men have lasted against the Templars?” Ernulf countered. “If we want to storm the Temple, we need more swords.”
Ulfrik did not immediately reply, but stood in contemplation a moment before he spoke again. “Go, kill the priestess and the lay brother they left behind. Feed their bodies to the pigs. No one here needs to know, but have their robes left on the doorsteps of the Temple. Let that be a message to them – the price of their interference,” Ulfrik said harshly.
“The lay brother is not a problem,” Ernulf said. “But the priestess too?”
“Is something the matter?” Ulfrik said coldly, turning his head to gaze directly at the thane.
“No, captain,” Ernulf mumbled. “Should we not tell the Dull Knife about any of this?”
“Isenwald needs not know anything,” Ulfrik said dismissively.
“You have not told him about the message from the Citadel either, then,” Ernulf ventured to guess.
“As said, he does not need to know anything. Be on your way, see to your task,” Ulfrik told the thane, and the two men separated.