When morning came, it brought relief to the inhabitants of the Citadel. The garrison had resisted an assault and proved that it was capable of defending the fortress against the rebels. Those slain were placed in the Hall of the Honoured Dead with their weapons until such time they could be buried. Breakfast was delayed for the court, though no harsh words were spoken on that occasion; everybody was too relieved to be angry.
While most assumed that the delay was simply because the servants were relaxing and enjoying the good mood inside the castle, there was another reason. A score of the kitchen girls were not in their beds when it was time to wake, and subsequently they appeared later in the kitchens than normal to begin the day’s work. In fact, all the girls sharing a dormitory with Kate had fallen asleep in the library tower.
“Time to wake,” Quill called out, still wearing his sleepwear from when the assault had roused him. Around the tower, sleepy girls woke up from their improvised beds; blankets on tables and benches, many of them huddled together for warmth. Upon hearing Quill’s voice, they stirred from slumber.
“Thank you, Master Quill,” one of them said without specifying what precisely had given cause for gratitude, perhaps a mixture of all the events of the preceding night. Several other girls repeated the sentiment with voices slurred of weariness as he unlocked the large door and opened it for them.
“It was no matter,” Quill muttered, watching them move towards the door one by one. A few walked outside, but when it came time for the youngest girl to leave, she stopped and hesitated before she wrapped her small arms around Quill’s waist, which was as high up as she could reach. “There, now,” he said, patting her head awkwardly. He found no immediate release, however; upon seeing this, the other girls crowded around him to likewise express their fondness until he could not keep himself from laughing.
The kitchens soon after were flurrying with activity to make up for lost time. Cook scowled and barked at the girls as they marched in, but there was little bite in her tongue. Once breakfast had been served and it was time for the servants to have their own meal in the form of porridge, the fearsome matron even left the kitchens to tend to some other affair; without her usual supervision, the servants could fill their plates completely and eat every last scrap without reproach.
Later in the day, Kate had to fetch water; she separated from the others and walked down the corridor, whose only other exit was the small room constructed to house the well that fed from the castle cisterns. She had just lowered the bucket and begun pulling it back when something unnerved her, and she turned on her heel. Blocking the corridor once again was Holwine.
“I am not doing it!” Kate exclaimed. As the rope slipped from her hands, the bucket splashed down into the well.
“Doing what?” Holwine frowned.
“Whatever it is you want me to do,” Kate said determinedly. “I refuse.”
The other person laughed. “I am only here to thank you, Kate.”
“Oh.” The kitchen girl relaxed. “Well, I prefer that.”
“Thanks to you, a traitor was unmasked and an attack was prevented. Last night would have gone differently if not for you,” Holwine said, grabbing the rope and pulling up the full bucket from the well.
“I guess I did good,” Kate grinned as she took hold of the bucket. “Funny, I didn’t even know that was my fault. That the enemy was beaten back, I mean.”
“Probably very few people will ever know,” Holwine nodded. “But I am one of them. I wanted to tell you that. To let you know that you are a hero, Kate.”
“I’m just a girl,” Kate said with half a smile. “I cut vegetables and fetch water and pluck fowls.”
“One does not have to exclude the other,” Holwine said with a wry smile. The servant left swiftly without further words, leaving Kate behind with flushed cheeks.
In the dungeons, Elis was in a mood as low as his subterranean accommodations. Whenever the guard entered and left a plate of food within his reach, the chained nobleman would spray questions in every direction but to no avail. Due to his location, Elis had been unable to hear whether or not there had been an attack. The only thing he could deduce, given the surcoat of his guard, was that the Order still held the Citadel.
The morning had not yet passed when Elis heard the familiar sound of the door between the circular guardroom and the corridor opening. A face looked in on the prisoner through the barred window in the cell door.
“My lady,” Elis said hoarsely.
“You look pitiful,” Isabel said with a neutral voice.
“Momentary setback,” Elis claimed without much conviction.
“The rebels attacked last night but were repulsed. Your efforts failed,” Isabel reported.
Elis looked disheartened for a moment. “At least there is no actual proof of my involvement,” he managed to say.
“There is now. I spoke with the captain of the Citadel just this morning and told him of your complicity,” the lady said in a factual voice.
“What?” Elis stammered.
“You failed one too many times,” Isabel said lightly. “I could not take the risk you might attempt to implicate me to save yourself.”
“I would never,” Elis declared indignantly.
“Would you not?” Isabel asked rhetorically with one eyebrow raised.
“But they will throw you in chains as well!” Elis burst out. “You have achieved nothing but doom us both!”
“Would I be standing here if that were the case? You think too little of me,” Isabel said coldly. “I told the captain that you had bragged about your intentions to betray the garrison, ostensibly to impress me. When I was not, you threatened me. I was afraid to speak up,” Isabel explained, weaving the tale expertly. “And I thought it was all bluster on your part. Only when I heard of your incarceration and the attack did I realise my grave error by not immediately telling all of this to the captain. Alas,” Isabel said with a grim smile, “I am but a feeble, weak-willed woman. Could anyone blame me? The captain, at least, chose not to.”
“You have killed me,” Elis said while staring blankly ahead as realisation struck him. “They will execute me for this.”
“Most likely,” Isabel assented. “I merely thought you deserved to be told in advance by me personally.”
“Unless Isarn takes the Citadel,” Elis said, his voice clinging to hope. “They will free me, they will know I am their friend.”
“Except they do not know,” Isabel reminded him. “You made sure your name was kept secret.”
“But I can convince them,” Elis said feebly. “I communicated with them. I can prove it was me.”
“Even so, why should the jarl care? You baited his men into a failed assault,” Isabel pointed out. “Before that, you deceived him at the Adalthing, robbing him of the position as lord protector. If the Order does not execute you, Lord Elis, I feel quite certain that Jarl Isarn will.”
“Last month I was dragonlord of Adalrik,” Elis whispered. “How did this happen?”
“I suggest you take this time to get your affairs in order. If you confess and throw yourself on their mercy, perhaps they will allow your son to inherit your title. It would not have been the case in Hæthiod,” Isabel said light-heartedly, “but these drakonians are soft-hearted. Farewell, Lord Elis.”
Inside the Temple complex, the high priest was sitting on the bed in his cell. In front of him stood a blackrobe, an acolyte by the lack of emblem on his chest. “The attack was repulsed, Holy One,” the acolyte reported. “In the darkness, it was difficult to see much, but they seem to have only attacked the southern walls. It was small scale as well. Little more than a hundred men involved, perhaps.”
“I see,” Septimus nodded slowly. Two of his fingers were playing with a loose strand on his grey robe, straightening it out until it slipped from his grasp and then repeating the motion. “What were the casualties?”
“We counted at least forty men of Isarn scaling the walls and not returning. Perhaps a few more. As for the garrison, it is impossible to say what their losses were.”
“Your best guess?”
The acolyte stood with a face painted with doubt. “Six or seven were slain as the Isarn soldiers first reached the walls. Perhaps the same number lost as they repelled the attackers. Probably more,” he corrected himself. “But of course, some may only have been wounded and survived the battle once aid could be administered.”
“Good,” Septimus nodded thoughtfully. “Good,” he repeated, his voice growing distant. “Has Sister Adilah broken my command?”
“Not as far as I know,” the blackrobe told him. “But I can ask the brother who last watched her.”
“Do that, please,” Septimus said while his eyes stared idly into the air.
“Will there be anything else, Holy One?” the acolyte asked.
“No, thank you,” Septimus smiled, turning to look at his companion while shaking his head. “You may leave.”
After the other man had left, Septimus sat in contemplation for a while. At length, he took a small knife from his desk and cut the loose thread from his robe; then he stood up, straightened the fabric a bit, and left his room.
The soldiers involved in the attack had left the Isarn compound after dark, and they returned before dawn; thus, very few had seen their movements either way. However, the absence of those killed upon the Citadel walls could be observed. There was also a great number of wounded moving about in the courtyard as their injuries allowed them; the archers of the garrison had done good work, and many Isarn soldiers had been hurt fleeing down the walls or in the fall sustained when their path of escape had literally been severed by the victorious defenders. Those who had suffered too much to walk were placed on improvised beds in a tent erected on the yard, according to the conventional wisdom that fresh air increased the healing process.
“There has been fighting,” Arndis told the others as she took her place by the window and watched everything going on in the courtyard.
“They made their attack on the Citadel,” Theodwyn speculated, joining Arndis by the observation post.
“Most likely. Or fighting erupted somewhere else in the city,” Arndis pondered.
“Did they win or lose?” Eleanor asked, absent-mindedly running a finger over the scars on her cheek.
“Impossible to say,” Theodwyn said annoyed. “And these wretches outside our door will not tell us much, I wager.”
“We will ask the servants when they bring us food,” Arndis declared.
“If they have taken the Citadel,” Eleanor considered, “does this mean we cannot expect to be freed by the Order?”
“I do not think it matters much in that respect,” Theodwyn argued. “The Citadel holding out is an annoyance. It will be an army from the outside that arrives and retakes the city.”
“But which?” Arndis said with a touch of despair in her voice as she left her post and paced around the room. “With the army at Lake Myr gone, who is left to save the city and us?”
“The Order has armies in the other realms,” Theodwyn mentioned. “It is a matter of time only until they react to the jarl’s treachery.”
“Weeks? Months?” Arndis asked, to which Theodwyn could only shrug.
“But what about the jarl Vale?” Eleanor inserted, prompting the other two women to look at her. “He has an army, and he must desire to see the city liberated from Jarl Isarn as well.”
“I do not know if we would be in much better conditions,” Theodwyn said with a sinister tone. “If one jarl defeats the other, whoever is left will take control of the realm. We may exchange one tyrant for another.”
“How promising,” Arndis muttered.
“Do not lose hope yet, my little lambs,” Theodwyn said with uncharacteristic cheer. “This war has just begun. We may suffer for the moment, yes, but it is far from over. It does not befit ladies of our standing to sink into desperation simply because our circumstances are less than ideal. Do you hear me, Arndis?”
“Yes, yes,” the other woman answered wearily. “I am just fatigued by the lack of news. The constant uncertainty.”
“We all have someone dear to us trapped in conflict,” Eleanor reminded them.
“I know,” Arndis nodded. “And there are some who have it worse. The jarlinna, being pregnant and with her little son, and the jarl being dragged away as a prisoner.”
“Lady Ingmond seemed to possess fortitude,” Theodwyn said confidently. “I am sure she is holding her head high.”
“Maybe,” Arndis said doubtingly. “She has two lives to safeguard apart from her own. I would not blame her for being in deep distress.”
“She is a jarlinna, and Jarl Ingmond is their most important hostage,” Theodwyn argued. “They will not dare to harm her.”
“Let us hope so,” Eleanor added, her fingers once more tracing the marks of disfiguration upon her face. “In war, there are few such guarantees. When men become desperate, they lose what makes them men.”
“You speak of experience, Eleanor?” Theodwyn asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No,” Eleanor said quietly, “just thinking out loud. You never know what a man might do until he is cornered.” Having said that, she quickly removed her fingers from her scars by closing her hand to a fist.
Outside in the courtyard, Ulfrik and Ernulf were assessing the damage. Once it had been clear that the assault would fail and Ernulf had signalled a retreat, those already on the walls had been left to die. Perversely, this now aided them in hiding the scope of their failure; there were fewer wounded whom the others had brought back for treatment at the Isarn manor. Still, it could not be hidden that some form of skirmish had been fought.
“Even the Dull Knife is bound to notice something happened,” Ernulf mumbled.
“That is not your concern,” Ulfrik told him brusquely.
“It will be if our grip on the city is weakened due to this,” Ernulf retorted. “We will not be able to man the walls and patrol the city as effectively.”
“It is no matter,” Ulfrik said dismissively. “The garrison at the Citadel is no threat to us.”
“What do we tell Isenwald about this?” Ernulf asked with a low voice. “What if the jarl finds out?”
“Leave all that to me,” Ulfrik replied with his customary growl. “I will handle the boy and his father.”
“You should. This was your command, all responsibility falls upon you,” Ernulf declared.
Swiftly, Ulfrik grabbed him by the collar. “Do not think for one second to go behind my back,” the captain said with a clenched jaw, using his imposing size for intimidation. “Do not breathe a word of this to our lord or his son. Or I will take you with me, I swear by Hel.”
“I would never dream, milord,” Ernulf said, turning his face away.
“Good,” Ulfrik hissed, slowly releasing the thane from his grasp.
“What – is going – on?” Isenwald said. The two warriors had conducted their conversation by the steps to the entrance of the house, and now the current lord of the city appeared in the doorway.
“Small misunderstanding, my lord,” Ulfrik said. “It has been settled.”
“What about them?” Isenwald nodded towards the tent. Its sides were open to allow fresh air freely, which meant that the wounded were clearly visible.
“The enemy attempted a nightly assault from the castle,” Ulfrik swiftly explained. “It was easily dismissed, and they retreated.”
“Did we suffer – losses?”
“Not many, my lord,” Ulfrik reassured him.
“Perhaps this will make – it easier for us to capture the castle,” Isenwald considered.
“Doubtful,” Ernulf mumbled, though he was not heard by the others.
“My father sends word,” Isenwald continued, waving a piece of parchment in his hands. “It arrived – just this morning, right after the city gates – opened.”
“Good news, my lord?” Ulfrik asked.
“He writes that most of the remaining northern landgraves are – on – our side,” Isenwald nodded. “Soon they will have completed their muster. He says – in a few weeks at most, we will have all the soldiers we need.”
“Good,” Ulfrik smiled coldly. “Then we can end this war.”
“I hope so,” Isenwald assented. “The sooner the better. I am not fond – of all this,” he added before he turned back into the house.
“You realise that if we win, that boy becomes heir to the throne after his father,” Ernulf said once Isenwald was out of earshot.
“That is not your concern,” Ulfrik told him with a vicious look.
“He strikes me as someone easily ruled by the counsel of others,” Ernulf ventured to say.
“Careful, Ernulf. I once removed the tongue from a man because his words displeased me,” the captain of the thanes threatened.
“I meant no offence,” Ernulf said, raising his hands in a disarming gesture. “I merely hope you’ll not forget who has always followed your command.”
“Though not with much success,” Ulfrik snorted. “But keep your mouth shut and do as you are told,” he added. “You would be surprised how far in life that will get you.”
“I live to serve,” Ernulf smiled and walked away.
In the days following their failed assault on the Citadel, the occupiers of Middanhal made few other moves. They tightened their control on the various districts and reinforced the blockade around the Citadel, ensuring that a sharp watch was kept and no sortie possible. Days began to turn into weeks before the city experienced upheaval once more.
It happened at nightfall; nearly a month after Isarn’s uprising had first begun. The moon had completed another cycle and was once again absent from the night sky; thus it did not illuminate what was about to transpire. There was no indication until past midnight; then the first arrows began to fly. Such stealth was employed that up towards another hour passed until secrecy could no longer be maintained and the first messages of warning were passed on to rouse the Isarn warriors at their compound.
Inside their house, chaos erupted as people woke up. There was a clash between the unquestionable certainty that the shouts of alarm meant an attack and the sheer unexpectedness of the event. The common soldiers, whose makeshift barracks were the outer buildings of the Isarn compound, gathered in the courtyard to wait for orders. The thanes and household soldiers inside the main house itself congregated in the entrance hall, exchanging bewildered looks as they donned their armour and readied their weapons.
“What – is happening?” Isenwald asked, blinking repeatedly as his eyes were still heavy with sleep.
“An attack,” Ulfrik sneered. “We must –”
He was interrupted by the doors opening and one of their soldiers rushing inside. He all but collapsed as soon as he was past the entrance as evidence of the haste he had employed. “Milords,” he breathed barely audible.
“Speak, man!” Ulfrik shouted. “Do you have knowledge of the enemy? Is it the garrison at the Citadel?”
“No,” the soldier shook his head faintly. “They came from outside, against the walls.”
“Run to the barricade,” Ulfrik commanded a nearby thane. “Tell the men there to hurry to the south walls and reinforce them.”
“Too late,” came an objection from the newly arrived soldier. “You don’t understand,” he panted. “They are in the city!”