38. Tread Lightly
After Isenwald’s warning to Valerie, every member of the House of Vale in Middanhal had quickly and quietly left the capital. The same night where the jarl of Isarn made his bid for power and seized control of the city, the jarl of Vale was sitting in a carriage on the Kingsroad. With him were his brother, daughter, nephew, his chamberlain, and his thanes on their own mounts. The following day, they left the Kingsroad and travelled west as fast as their horses could carry them. There was little rest or respite until they reached Coldharbour, the northernmost city in the province of Vale. As their company passed through the gate, many breathed sighs of relief.
Arion the chamberlain was immediately dispatched south to Valcaster, seat of the jarls of Vale, on the swiftest ship that could be found; in his hands, he brought orders to prepare for war. The morning after, the jarl and his family followed suit, travelling by ship down the Mihtea; with favourable wind or many oars, a ship could make that journey in a few days. Despite having reached the relative safety of their own territory, there was little conversation between the kinsfolk of Vale. Valerian, remembering how and why Valerie was warned about Isenhart’s plans, did not speak to his daughter. Valerie was too disheartened to respond to her cousin’s attempts at cheering her up. Sometimes, when neither Valerian or Valerie would speak, Konstantine would instead try to engage his father with no luck either; Konstans was too occupied making plans to speak to anyone.
Thus, the journey passed in silence until their ship spotted the towers of Valcaster in the distance. Approximately a week had passed since their flight from Middanhal; that very night before, Elis had carried out his schemes and Kate had stolen pears in the Citadel orchard. None of the members of the House of Vale knew of the events in Middanhal that were taking place or about to; they only knew that Valcaster, second-largest city in Adalrik, was about to welcome them home.
The ship had been spotted many hours before it would reach the harbour of Valcaster, and the banner upon the mast proclaimed that it had the jarl aboard. Therefore, when the ship moored along the pier, several people stood in attendance. At the front stood two women; just behind them was the chamberlain Arion, having arrived a few days before. Both women were richly dressed in silk and jewellery, either of which exceeded a year’s wage for a labourer. The two women had little else in common, though. One was young, in the middle of her twenties; the other approached twice that age. One wore a bright smile that illuminated her features with joy; the other wore a blank expression that showed no emotion. One was wringing her hands in anticipation, restless and finding it difficult to stand still; the other was an immovable object.
“You may contain yourself, Alexandra,” the older woman said without looking at her companion. “The ship will not arrive faster.”
“I know, my lady,” Alexandra said, her eyes keeping focus forward as well. “I am merely still overwhelmed by all the news. Until I see our lord, I can scarce believe he is already returning.”
“You may be assured, my lady,” Arion’s smooth voice came from behind, “that the jarl is on that ship.”
“Yes, yes, Arion,” the older woman said dismissively, “the jarlinna is not questioning your message. It is merely youthful exuberance that has her in its grasp, I wager,” she said with a superior tone of voice.
“Of course, Lady Mathilde,” Arion said softly, retreating a step.
Now the ship approached the harbour. Valcaster was built around a bend in the river Mihtea, slowing its current, forcing ships to adjust course, thereby making it a natural place to moor and rest from one’s journey. The city lay south of the river, which flowed along the northern and western side of Valcaster. On the opposing bank, a mighty tower had been built with catapults to sink hostile ships and control that side of the river. Of course, a ship with sails in the red and golden colours of Vale would not be subjected to any such event. Unhindered, the jarl’s ship sailed down the river, made the bend, passed the tower, and finally reached the harbour of Valcaster.
Swiftly, the skilled boat hands made the leap from ship to pier, mooring it securely, so the jarl and his relatives could disembark. His brother, his daughter, and lastly his nephew along with the thanes. As soon as his feet touched the pier, Valerian took swift steps towards Alexandra, who mirrored his movements. She extended her hands, which he grasped with his own.
“It is good to see you return, my lord,” she smiled.
“It is good to be seen returned,” he said with a trace of laughter. “Mathilde,” he added, greeting her with a brief nod before his attention returned towards his wife.
“My lord,” Mathilde replied, returning the jarl’s greeting and speaking her own towards his brother, Konstans. “Husband.”
“Dearest wife,” Konstans said neutrally.
The two brothers continued moving forward; their wives turned around, falling into pace and walking alongside them, followed by their retinue. Valerie and Konstantine quickly closed the distance to walk side by side with the others, prompting another flurry of exchanged greetings.
“Hallo, Mother,” Konstantine said quietly.
“Welcome home, my son,” Mathilde replied, exhibiting a smile briefly.
“Valerie, so good to see you,” Alexandra exclaimed, taking hold of the other woman’s arm as they walked next to each other.
“Same to you,” Valerie smiled.
“Straight to your chamber, Valerie,” Valerian said with a stern voice, staring straight ahead. “Nowhere else.”
“Yes, Father,” Valerie muttered. Alexandra sent her an inquisitive look but received nothing in return.
No further words were spoken as they left the pier where two carriages waited for them. The members of the House of Vale climbed inside while the thanes took marching positions surrounding the wagons, the entire retinue leaving the harbour with speed and entering Valcaster itself.
A belated noon meal was prepared soon after the cortege reached the keep. The jarl was entreated to relate the tale of his escape from Middanhal as well as any other news from the capital. Valerian accommodated his court to some extent, though he did not mention how he came to be warned of Isenhart’s treachery. While the jarl was thus occupied entertaining his courtiers, his brother carried on a quieter conversation with his wife. “How have affairs been in Valcaster?” Konstans asked, cutting his meat into tiny pieces and eating them delicately.
“Little to remark on. Some trouble with the servants, but when is that not the case,” Mathilde remarked casually. “I managed to install a new handmaiden to Alexandra, who has proved very informative,” she added, speaking more softly.
“Has Alexandra given you any trouble while we were away?” her husband asked with a light frown.
“Not as such,” Mathilde shrugged, spearing a carrot with her fork. “She defers to me where it matters, and I let her decide when it is inconsequential. But she has taken a greater interest in the affairs of the jarldom.”
“Probably at Valerian’s encouragement, I wager,” Konstans considered.
“Perhaps not. The girl may be more ambitious than her looks imply,” his wife replied.
“It grows to be of less importance. When this war is over, we shall rule Middanhal instead. Let my brother’s wife entertain herself with Valcaster.”
Mathilde paused for a moment before she broached a new subject. “What of our son?”
“What of him,” Konstans replied, taking careful sips of his diluted wine.
“How did he conduct himself in the capital?” she asked.
“Passably, I suppose,” Konstans said, sounding disinterested. “I was rather occupied. He did not make a fool of himself, I would have noticed that.”
“He is twenty and your brother’s heir,” Mathilde said insistently while her hands tore a loaf of bread into edible pieces. “Is it not time he was given responsibilities worthy of his position?”
This remark made Konstans slowly turn his head to look at his wife. “You think Konstantine could have handled the intricacy of the Adalthing? Tell me true, has he ever displayed an aptitude for such?”
“I am not arguing he should be given charge of everything,” Mathilde retorted, “but under your careful guidance he could be given a task on occasion.”
“I allow him to accompany me and learn,” Konstans pointed out, slightly absent-minded; his attention was caught by whispers between the jarl and the jarlinna. “All the boy has to do is keep his eyes open.”
“You will let him be present this afternoon? When your brother takes counsel?” she asked.
“Yes, he might as well,” Konstans agreed. He quickly turned to look at his wife again. “Any reason for your insistence?”
“As I said, Konstantine is growing up,” Mathilde said. “Some might doubt his worthiness as an heir because he is your son and not your brother’s son. I want him to prove beyond doubt that he deserves to be the next jarl of Vale,” she finished, glancing towards where the current jarl sat embroiled in conversation with his own wife.
After the meal, plenty of people desired the jarl’s time and attention; however, it was tacitly understood that there were more pressing matters. With war broken out, Valerian’s first priority was spoken for; a war council had to be held. In the keep at Valcaster, there was a room for this purpose. Konstans went there directly after telling his son to follow him; Valerian went to his private chambers first. In his study, he unlocked a drawer in his desk, opened it, and withdrew a small journal.
Sitting down, he grabbed a quill and added small notes and numbers to a page, detailing various specifics and pieces of information from his last journey. The hinges of the chamber door announced with a creak that somebody entered the room. “Yes?” the jarl asked without looking up from his book.
“Valerian?” asked a female voice.
“Alexandra,” he smiled and raised his head towards her.
“I am sorry to disturb you. I know you are meticulous about your records,” she began to say.
“I am almost done,” he assured her, returning to quickly scribble a few more entries. “But I must leave in a moment.”
“I shall be swift,” she promised. “I did not wish to enquire about this when others were near. But your message said nothing about my father, my sister, or my brother.”
Valerian’s face lost its trace of a smile. “There was no time. They are trapped in Middanhal.”
“I thought as much,” Alexandra nodded. “Unless you object, I will write to let my mother know and invite her to Valcaster to stay with us. Her steward can handle matters without her, I am sure.”
“Whatever you think best,” Valerian said distracted, finishing writing his book. “Now I must take my leave. I promise you will have my full attention tonight.”
“You always gave a fair bargain,” Alexandra smiled. “I think I will spend the afternoon practising my archery. The new range you have had installed is very agreeable to me.”
“I am pleased to hear that,” her husband replied, clearing his desk and locking his journal away.
“My practice suffers a bit from a lack of a worthy opponent, however,” she said with an innocent look. “I have rather missed Valerie since you took her with you to the capital.”
“And a mistake that was,” Valerian grumbled lowly. “She is confined to her chambers as punishment. She does not deserve a reprieve,” he said sternly.
“It is not for her sake,” Alexandra quickly spoke. “I would merely have her company because it is an aid to me.” Valerian was walking through the room; as he reached the door where Alexandra stood, she placed a light hand on his arm. “For my sake? Please?”
Valerian gave another grumble. “If I were not pressed for time, I would probably think this through and dislike the notion,” he speculated loudly.
“But now?” Alexandra probed with an endearing smile.
“If it will please you,” Valerian said dismissively, and he was promptly rewarded with a kiss on the cheek.
“You are the best of husbands,” his wife told him.
“And you are too cunning for your own good or mine,” Valerian growled, but the corners of his mouth were twitching upwards and took the sting from his words. He quickly left the room, marching towards his council chamber.
Like any decent room for such purposes, the council chamber had a large map of the Seven Realms. Usually it was furled together and stored nearby, but for the occasion, it had been laid out and placed on the table in the centre of the room. A large handful of elegantly carved pieces resembling footmen and horsemen had been spread across the map in representation of armies.
Konstans was occupied moving pieces around, examining how it changed the situation and returning them to their original position. Nearby, Konstantine and Arion were watching in silence. The door opened to admit Valerian. The jarl glanced around. “I thought you would have summoned Alfonso here as well,” Valerian wondered.
“Alfonso is a good thane,” Konstans said without looking up from the map, “and he is perhaps even a decent captain of your thanes. But at birth, all of his gifts were assigned to the use of his hand, not his head.”
This remark awoke faint amusement from the others. “I suppose,” Valerian muttered. “But we are going to need more commanders than you and I, Brother.”
“I am aware,” Konstans nodded. “If our margraves were not trapped in Middanhal, I would have suggested Lord Jaunis. He is rather motivated towards defending us.”
“My father-in-law is quite capable, yes,” Valerian assented, “but as you say, also unavailable.”
“Let us save that concern for later,” Konstans suggested. “It will be weeks before conscription is carried out and our soldiers assembled at any rate. First, we need to know our situation.”
“How have you laid out the map?” Valerian asked.
“Isenhart holds Middanhal,” Konstans began to explain, his fingers touring the map. “Athelstan has one of their armies. About five thousand men, we are told, which means they have another five thousand men they can mobilise from Isarn itself. We should expect to face an invasion of up towards ten thousand.”
“We can match those numbers,” Valerian said gruffly. “As long as we have time. What of the soldiers you have placed here?” he asked, pointing at the centre of southern Adalrik.
“The provinces of the southern landgraves,” Konstans explained. “Some of them are also trapped in Middanhal, and we cannot expect their lands or families to aid us. But I sent letters to all of their holdings when we reached Coldharbour a few days ago. I am waiting for their replies to see whom we may count on. It is my intention to make the lands directly east of Vale hostile towards Isarn, forming an unbroken chain that protects our eastern border. A wall that their army must cross before they can invade us, thereby giving us time.”
“But will they not simply invade from the northeast?” Valerian questioned. “They can march straight from Middanhal to Coldharbour unopposed and then south into our remaining lands.”
“Athelstan destroyed the Order at Lake Myr,” Konstans reminded him, tapping his finger at that location in the centre of southern Adalrik. “It would be natural for him to march to Ingmond first.”
“How so?” Konstantine asked, breaking his silence.
“Jarl Ingmond is their prisoner,” Valerian explained, his eyes absorbed by the map. “Those are fertile lands, rich in food that his army will need if Athelstan plans to besiege us.”
“But it will cost him if he marches straight west against us,” Konstans added, “through hostile lands. The only alternative is to return to Middanhal and march upon us from the northeast. Which should buy us time to finish mobilising our troops.”
“What of Lord Marcaster?” Valerian enquired. “He is by far the strongest landgrave, and he protects our southern flank.”
“In that regard, we are blessed by fortune and foresight,” Konstans told his brother. “I have already made an alliance with Marcaster, and his men are already mobilised. He promised he would bring up towards four thousand soldiers to our cause.”
“His army is already gathered?” Valerian spoke with a frown. “How so? Did he have foreknowledge of Isarn’s treachery?”
“Not quite,” Konstans explained. “When the prince was slain, I knew some would blame us. He was travelling to our lands, after all, as part of an arrangement we made. I feared that we might be the target of retribution. But how would it have looked if we had begun gathering our armies right after the prince’s death?” he asked, suddenly looking at his son.
“It would have looked as if –” Konstantine began to speak, caught unawares so that he had to start his sentence anew. “We would have looked guilty.”
Konstans nodded. “Or as if we planned to capitalise upon his demise. But no such suspicion would fall upon Marcaster.”
“So you bade him leave Middanhal and gather his forces,” Valerian said in realisation. “Very clever, Brother.”
Konstans accepted the compliment with a small nod and a smile. “Now those forces can be used to keep Athelstan in check, hinder his progress and buy us further time.”
A cough came from Arion. “I am very sorry to intrude, but this is where I must play the part as your chamberlain, milord,” he said, swallowing. “Which entails delivering messages arrived for you, including those bearing ill news.”
“Well? What is it?” Valerian asked impatiently.
“A very brief message from your reeve in Inghold. I had to piece a few things together to understand the full story,” Arion explained hesitantly.
“Skip to the conclusion,” Konstans said coldly.
“Apparently,” Arion began to elaborate while wetting his lips, “Lord Marcaster heard about Lake Myr and Sir Athelstan’s march into Ingmond. Presumably, he felt his own army was ready for battle, while Sir Athelstan’s forces were exhausted.”
“No,” Konstans hissed. “No, do not say it is so.”
“The armies met near the border between the provinces. It was a crushing victory for the Isarn forces. Lord Marcaster’s army is scattered or captured as is the landgrave himself,” Arion finished.
“I told that fool!” Konstans exclaimed. “I told him not to engage Athelstan on his own. What was that simpleton thinking?”
“My assumption would be that Lord Marcaster thought he might bring the war to a swift end, making himself into a hero,” Arion pondered and received a furious look from Konstans.
“It was not a question to which I required an answer,” the latter said with a clenched jaw.
“It was Marcaster’s soldiers, not ours,” Valerian reminded his brother. “Calm yourself. We ourselves have lost nothing.”
“Athelstan is in Ingmond,” Konstans retorted. “From there, he can march unopposed through Marcaster’s lands and invade ours with his supply lines safely protected all the way from Inghold. In two weeks, Valcaster itself could be under siege!” he burst out, raising his hands in frustration.
“Then we fight defensively,” Valerian decided. “As long as we control the river, we can reinforce the city endlessly. Meanwhile, any reinforcements for Isarn will have to come all the way beyond Middanhal. We will disrupt their supply lines, wear them down.”
“Could we not cut them off entirely?” Konstantine ventured to say, making every other man in the room turn to stare at him. Steeling himself, the youth walked over to the table and pointed at the capital. “Half their forces are still being gathered in Isarn, right? We know they will have to pass through Middanhal to reach Athelstan.”
“We cannot hope to take the city easily,” Valerian argued. “It would take months at the very least, and we would suffer catastrophic losses.”
“We need not take the city,” Konstans considered, sending his son an approving look. “If we merely besiege it, we can keep Isarn’s army trapped inside it. Or force them to fight unfavourably if they attempt a sortie.”
“But we would have to send most of our soldiers north to ensure that,” Valerian protested. “We would leave Vale itself all but unprotected.”
“I think it has become clear that we should avoid meeting Athelstan on the battlefield,” Konstans said grimly. “Not unless we outnumber him many times over. We let him invade and exhaust his army on besieging our cities. Deny him any resources we can,” the jarl’s brother continued. “We keep our horsemen here as a mobile force and to conduct raids on Athelstan while we gather our infantry in Coldharbour and march them against Middanhal. Should Athelstan attempt something desperate, such as marching directly on Valcaster, we hold the advantage of speed. Our army can return to Coldharbour and sail to Valcaster within days.”
“We shall require all the ships we can claim,” Valerian pondered. “Arion, make sure every ship in my employ is gathered here in Valcaster. Every vessel already here that is not owned by me, send soldiers to confiscate it. We will need them all,” he instructed his servant.
“At once, milord,” Arion bowed his head and quickly left the room.
“It will still take time,” Valerian warned his brother. “Some of our crafts are as far away as Herbergja.”
“That is how it must be,” Konstans replied. “This is the best use of our soldiers. We cannot risk them in the field against Athelstan until the time is right. If they can lay siege to Middanhal meanwhile, they will starve Athelstan of reinforcements.”
“We are taking a risk nonetheless,” Valerian said quietly. “We may hide in our cities, yes, but we give Athelstan control of everything beyond.”
“Which is why our next step should be to hire mercenaries,” Konstans argued. “Send word to our reeve in Herbergja or even Alcázar.”
“What? Men with no honour?” Valerian exclaimed indignantly.
“It is not their honour we pay for, but their swords,” Konstans said dryly. “The mercenaries can play the role that Marcaster’s forces should have. Hinder Athelstan’s progress, limit his options. Once our own armies are gathered, collectively, we will hold sufficient superiority of numbers.”
“We will not be in much esteem if we win this war by such means,” the jarl said with dislike in his voice.
“We will be in less esteem if we lose,” his brother countered. “What use is all your gold if it cannot bring us victory?”
“I will consider it,” Valerian said reluctantly. “Could we not rely on the Order instead? They have an army or at least something akin to it in Hæthiod still.”
Konstans shook his head. “We must assume it is engaged with the outlanders and unable to extricate itself. If they do return, I shall be happy to have been wrong. But we should make all our plans on the assumption that the Order will not participate in this war. At least not within foreseeable time.”
“What of the army we send to Middanhal?” Valerian asked. “Someone must lead it.”
“I suppose I shall do so,” Konstans contemplated. “Unless a better alternative can be thought of.”
“Another thing to consider,” Valerian added. “Now I am weary. Come, let us have some wine and sit in the arbour.”
“Go without me,” Konstans said, nodding for his son to follow the jarl. “I have further deliberations to make.” He grabbed the carved figurine that had represented Marcaster’s forces, strangling it in his grasp until his knuckles turned white.
The keep in Valcaster had a large courtyard as any such building would have; it played home to the stables as well as an array of other constructions for different purposes. One of these was a large archery range; the jarl of Vale favoured archers as his guards for his vast collection of properties and had facilities for them to keep their skills sharp. This afternoon, the two people training archery were not wearing Vale livery, however, nor were they wearing dresses as they normally did but rather garments that allowed unrestricted movement. One was the jarlinna of Vale; the other was her stepdaughter. A servant boy was nearby, fetching their arrows once they finished a round of shooting.
“You have improved,” Valerie commented as Alexandra placed her last arrow.
“I have had time to practice,” the jarlinna mentioned, watching the other woman line up her shot.
“Unlike me,” Valerie replied, narrowing her eyes slightly as she aimed. “There was little time for such pursuits during our stay in the capital.”
“You had time for disagreements with your father, I noticed,” Alexandra said cautiously.
With a whipping sound, the arrow left the bowstring and landed wide from the mark. “A difference of opinion,” Valerie said stiffly.
“I shall not pry,” the jarlinna promised. “Besides, your father has a short-lived temper. His displeasure will not last.”
“I suppose not,” the jarl’s daughter replied. “Alexandra, you care about my father, right? How exactly does such affection work?”
“Quite a question,” Alexandra said with a surprised expression. “I am not sure what you mean.”
“I mean,” Valerie began haltingly, “how do we choose to have affections for somebody? Why?”
“I do not know how conscious the choice is,” Alexandra considered. “Some people simply get easily along, I guess. Such as you and me.”
“Indeed,” Valerie smiled, pulling the bowstring back for her next shot and releasing it to better result.
“Your father was kind,” Alexandra suddenly added. “Valerian is a powerful man. He needs not exhibit kindness to those in lesser standing such as my own father. Yet he does. When I learned of your father’s intentions towards me, I thought that there must be some union between a man’s actions and his character. That if your father did good, ultimately, he would have to be a good man. So I accepted his offer.”
“Not all would agree to such thinking,” Valerie replied, shooting her third arrow. “My aunt, for instance. Has she let you decide anything in the jarldom while we were in Middanhal?”
“Oh, Mathilde is not so bad,” Alexandra shrugged. “She just has strong opinions. She likes to be useful, I suppose, so I let her deal with some matters.”
“I wonder if she thinks the same way,” Valerie said with a dry tone.
“In any case, I think very soon I will have other matters on my mind. Having somebody to lighten my burdens will be a blessing,” Alexandra said coyly.
“Other matters?” Valerie asked with a frown.
“I have not told your father yet,” Alexandra leaned forward to a whisper. She glanced at the servant boy, waiting for them to finish shooting. “Go fetch the arrows,” she told him. “In any case,” she continued to Valerie, “I thought he should get this dreadful business of war meetings over first. I will tell him tonight, and he will probably make a formal announcement soon.”
“Alexandra, are you saying what I think?” Valerie asked.
The jarlinna nodded eagerly. “You are going to be a sister, Valerie,” she exclaimed.
“Gods bless us!” Valerie burst out. “That is wonderful! You are certain?”
“I spoke with a sibyl last week, and she agrees with me. The signs are there. I cannot wait to see the look on your father’s face,” Alexandra glowed.
“This is a good omen,” Valerie smiled. “The Seven and Eighth have blessed us, truly.”
“I am glad you think so,” Alexandra said and bit her lower lip. “I was worried about telling you. You have been your father’s only child for so many years.”
“Nonsense!” Valerie said strongly. “Banish all such thoughts,” she continued, sweeping Alexandra up in a tight embrace. “Only happiness could ensue from your child being born. I am certain all in our house will agree.”
After the last bell rung, the weary refugees from Middanhal could finally go to rest in their own home. Several wings in the keep were distributed among the members of the House of Vale, giving all of them spacious personal chambers. Mathilde, sister-in-law to the jarl, had her own quarters as well, of course; however, as night fell, she did not move towards her own chamber but towards her husband’s.
She gave a soft knock and announced herself. When given admittance by Konstans’ servant, she found the jarl’s brother partly undressed in preparation for sleep. “Thank you, I will help his lordship tonight,” Mathilde told the servant, dismissing him. When he had gone, closing the door after him, Mathilde turned towards her husband.
“I did not expect to see you already tonight,” he remarked casually as she stepped closer and helped him undress.
“I thought we could speak privately,” she told him.
“And you intend a topic where it is best I am distracted?” Konstans asked as his wife removed his shirt.
“You know me too well,” she smiled. “I hear that you are sending the army north?”
“Not all our soldiers,” Konstans replied. “But those that can be ready within a few weeks. Enough to surround Middanhal from the south.”
“Who will lead this army?” Mathilde asked.
“Our list of able commanders is short, unfortunately. I may have to do it myself,” Konstans contemplated.
“Is that wise? Depriving your brother of your counsel, leaving him alone to lead the war?” Mathilde continued, letting her hands brush over her husband’s bare chest.
“While I would prefer to stay,” Konstans admitted, “I doubt I can convince Valerian to leave here.”
“A pretty, young wife will do that to a man,” Mathilde said with a scoff.
“I do not know whom else to trust,” Konstans continued.
“I have been told that it was Konstantine’s idea to besiege Middanhal, keep the sheepheads blocked in,” Mathilde said in a casual tone.
“That could be argued. I presume it is no coincidence that you bring up his name?” Konstans asked.
“He is your son. The jarl’s nephew and heir. Is it not time he assumes responsibility? Time that he is given a position equal to his standing,” Mathilde said.
“You want Konstantine to lead the army north?” Konstans asked with heavy doubt. “The boy has no experience in military matters.”
“Then this is an excellent opportunity for him to receive it,” Mathilde countered.
“He will be responsible for thousands of our men,” Konstans retorted with a sceptic voice. “I am not certain this is where to start.”
“The danger is not as great as it seems,” Mathilde said soothingly, framing her husband’s face with her hand. “Athelstan is in the south. Konstantine does not have to lead the army into battle. Merely lead it, be seen as a son of Vale.” Seeing the continued doubt on Konstans’ face, she quickly continued. “It does not have to be for the duration of the war. If you feel the need, you can always go north yourself and replace him. But let him have command for a while. Let him feel the weight of responsibility, let it mature him.”
“I am not convinced,” Konstans shook his head, and he turned away to grab a goblet of wine. “The boy is hardly gifted in matters of politics either, and I am playing a difficult game in convincing the southern landgraves to support us. If he makes a misstep somehow, it could cost us.”
“Send someone with him. Arion, for instance. He has a cool head on his shoulders and can advise Konstantine, yet he does not outrank him,” Mathilde suggested, taking the goblet from her husband and turning his attention back towards her. “Some of your brother’s thanes will accompany him as well. Choose a few that can handle the practical matters.”
“I remain reluctant,” Konstans said. “It would be safer if I commanded the army myself.”
“Of course it would be,” Mathilde agreed, her voice growing soft again as her hands gently ran over his skin. “Everything would be better if you could do everything. But you must relinquish the reins at some point. Konstantine will never grow if he is always living in your shadow. He must find his own footing somehow. That will never happen if he is always to tread in your footsteps. He will never find his own path.”
Konstans stood silent for a moment. “I suppose it is a father’s duty to challenge his son. Not to mention he will be jarl one day. Best he stand prepared when that day comes.”
“You are in agreement?” Mathilde smiled.
“I will speak to Valerian,” Konstans promised.
“That is all I ask,” his wife claimed as she trailed kisses over his jaw line and the conversation ended.