40. The Seat of Power
The Seat of Power
While his enemies in Valcaster were preparing their countermove and his brother was leading his armies to victory, Isenhart was journeying north. At first, his mood had been dark; his expectations had been that by now, the Adalthing would have bowed before him and the throne be his to ascend. His frustrations were eased, however, when a messenger caught up to them on the roads between Middanhal and Isarn, bearing tidings of the battle at Lake Myr. With the knowledge that the Order army had been destroyed, one obstacle had been removed in Isenhart’s path towards the Dragon Crown. Athelstan was moving to invade Vale, but he would still need any available reinforcements. For this purpose, Isenhart had returned to his jarldom and its capital of Silfrisarn, the ancient stronghold of the jarls of Isarn.
Third largest in Adalrik, Silfrisarn was commonly known as ‘the City of Silver’. The meaning of the name had changed as the city did; it was quite possibly the oldest settlement of Men in what constituted Adalrik, and thus it had a long and eventful history. Its origin was lost to time, being older than the realm in which it lay. In some distant past, large quantities of iron ore had been discovered; an inexhaustible source that was said to have supplied the northerners with their weapons as far back as the Great War.
Back then, Silfrisarn had been a mining town and nothing more. One day, some unknown person had struck silver in the same region of the Weolcan Mountains, forever changing its history. The exact events are uncertain, but it was general belief that this discovery of silver ore led to the first war between Adalrik and Vidrevi, founding a long-lasting rivalry.
Regardless of how it began, the outcome was known; Adalrik claimed lordship over the entire region and shaped it into the jarldom of Isarn. For many centuries and until trade through Ealond and Thusund became more profitable, Isarn was the most important province to the kings of Adalrik.
The events of the centuries were reflected in Silfrisarn. Gradually, the miners had been relocated further south near the mountains, now living in shantytowns. Merchants and craftsmen were attracted in great numbers, further enriching the city and beautifying it as well. The moniker ‘the City of Silver’, once denoting Silfrisarn as the centre of silver mining, eventually came to signify its rich palaces and estates. In keeping with its roots, iron and silver were often combined in adorning the city; in many places, iron statues with silver ornaments were erected, typically depicting the jarls of Isarn. Unlike the jarldoms of Vale and Ingmond, where new houses had been installed over the centuries, such had never happened in Isarn; the descendants of the first jarl of Isarn still ruled in the shape of Isenhart.
Situated in hilly terrain, Silfrisarn lay elevated compared to its surroundings. Thus to approach it, one had to ride upwards, and the guards could espy travellers from afar. With their banners unfurled in the wind, the jarl’s retinue identified itself as such, and the gate was wide open and clear by the time they reached it; with the well-earned ekename ‘Ironfist’, the jarl had among other things taught his subjects to always ensure his passage went smoothly.
Entering the city through the south gate, Isenhart and his procession swiftly rode through the city and its various quarters. The poorest part was the one they first entered; it was where the miners had once dwelled before they were gradually pushed out of the city. Slowly, the buildings grew larger and more expensive, though none ever reached a size to rival the castle of the jarls. The fortress lay embedded into the northern walls and towered over any other building in the city; even the local temple for Rihimil was dwarfed in comparison.
A horn had sounded from the gate as the jarl reached it; alerted this way, the castle knew to welcome him. Servants and stable boys stood ready to take the reins of his and his thanes’ horses as well as offering goblets of wine; the jarl dismounted in one fluid movement and grabbed the nearest cup, emptying it quickly. By his side, his cousin Athelbold did likewise. Along with Athelstan, he was Isenhart’s foremost counsellor and commander. “Good to be home,” Athelbold said to the jarl. Isenhart grunted a noise that could be interpreted as agreement and walked inside, followed by his retinue.
The members of the House of Isarn were waiting in the entrance hall to greet their lord and welcome him home. Male and female cousins of various degrees and their children, mostly; Isenhart’s closest male relatives were all south except for Athelbold and the latter’s son, Athelgar, who had also come to greet the jarl. Ahead of the rest stood a woman whose dress had silver threads, her fingers wore rings, and a necklace with a heavy pendant adorned her chest.
“We bid you welcome home, my lord,” she said. “And you, kinsman,” she added to Athelbold.
“Halla,” Isenhart greeted her along with a curt nod.
“My lady jarlinna,” Athelbold said courteously, inclining his head. “Son,” he continued with a look towards Athelgar. The youth stood like the others, but he distinguished himself by the thin scars around his nose; it was still in the process of healing after Ulfrik had broken it at Isenhart’s command, shortly before solstice.
“I am famished. Bring food to the table,” Isenhart commanded. His steward, standing nearby, sped away to carry out the order. The members of House Isarn scattered before the jarl as he walked forward without consideration, walking through his castle until he reached its great hall.
It took a while until a hot meal could be readied; until then, the servants plied their master with ale, bread, and pastries. The great hall in the keep of Silfrisarn had only one giant table, its planks hewn from the massive trees of neighbouring Vidrevi. At one end, sitting in a chair so large it almost constituted a throne, was the jarl’s seat. It was padded with the skin of a bear, laid in such a way that the open jaws and dead eyes were placed just above the head of the occupant. It was customary that when the jarl of Isarn died, he would be buried in this skin; once the sjaund or wake had been held, his heir was then supposed to venture into the forests and kill a bear whose pelt could next adorn the seat. Only then would he be accepted as the new jarl. The current bearskin was nearly thirty years old; Isenhart’s father had died on a hunt, leaving his son to become jarl at a young age.
By the jarl’s right side sat the jarlinna. The left hand was usually reserved for his heir; in the heir’s absence, other children or close male relatives. With Isenhart’s sons and brother away, however, the place was taken by Athelbold, his cousin. The seat by Athelbold’s left hand was empty; next to it sat his own son, Athelgar, and then came the rest of the jarl’s kinsmen in descending importance.
A woman entered the hall, dressed as a member of the household. She coughed a few times, trying to keep it discreet before she took the seat between Athelbold and Athelgar with a nervous glance towards Isenhart; he seemed preoccupied and did not appear to notice her arrival or presence.
While the jarl ate alone, the rest remained silent, looking down, exchanging glances, or watching their lord. Finally, a full meal was brought to the table, and once Isenhart’s plate had been filled, the others could begin to eat as well. With this distraction, the last arrival spoke in a hushed tone. “Welcome home, husband,” she said quietly to Athelbold and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Good to be home,” he muttered lowly before sending her an inspecting look. “Anhild, are you still not well?”
“Just a persistent cough,” she said reassuringly, patting Athelbold’s hand.
They did not have a chance to continue their exchange; with the worst of his hunger satiated, Isenhart gestured for his steward to approach him. “Did you receive my message?” he asked loudly before stuffing meat pie into his mouth.
“Yes, milord,” the steward said anxiously. “A muster has been called among all those who owe you fealty.”
“How long?” Isenhart asked, flushing down his food with ale.
“Some three weeks, milord.”
“Good. I will depart to the other northern regions meanwhile. Make the arrangements. The landgraves have promised me support, but best I keep them in line personally. Or what say you, Athelbold?” Isenhart asked with coarse laughter.
“Grenwold is a weasel of a man,” Athelbold remarked gruffly. “But with his children in our hands, I expect he will behave. We have still not heard word from Normark. Deorcliff, Farbjarg, and Hrossfeld are more reliable.”
“I will visit Normark first,” Isenhart growled. Emptying his cup, the jarl’s eyes fell on Athelgar and his damaged face. “How is your nose, young cousin?” Isenhart asked, his mouth curling to an expression of contempt.
“Healing,” the youth said surly, which earned him a disapproving look from the jarlinna. “Did I hear correctly, my lord, you are leaving us again so soon?”
“To keep the landgraves in check,” Isenhart said idly. “Why, do you wish to join me?” he asked with narrowed eyes.
“No thank you, my lord. Such holds little interest for me,” Athelgar replied.
“Is that so,” Isenhart said, his voice turning sharp. “You better pray that motivation finds you when we march south to finish Vale for good. Your tune might change once that happens.” He finished another cup of ale, which was immediately refilled by a nearby servant. “That reminds me,” Isenhart continued. “Send a letter to my son in Middanhal,” he told the steward. “Tell Isenwald when he may expect our arrival and what numbers we bring. I want all preparations for assaulting the Citadel to be in place before we arrive.”
“Yes, milord,” the steward bowed.
Isenhart grabbed his full cup, emptied it, and tossed it aside. “I am settled,” he declared in his loud voice, rising to stand. Immediately there was a sound of chairs and benches scuffling as everyone hastened to rise. “Tell my weapons master to meet me by the armoury. I want to inspect our stores of Nordsteel weaponry.”
“Yes, milord,” the steward replied, bowing once again and frantically gesturing to the nearest servant to comply. Once the jarl had left the hall, his remaining relatives sat down again and resumed their meal. Chatter erupted along the table and soon the atmosphere turned amiable; Athelbold’s young children left their seats and surrounded him, greeting their father with embraces and making his exterior crack. Some of them were eventually caught by their oldest brother, who squeezed them until they laughed and begged for mercy; Athelgar soon regretted this though, as they retaliated by trying to reach his broken nose, which made his mother fuss and rebuke their behaviour. The jarlinna, seated opposite, curled her lips upwards at this display and gave her first smile since the return of her husband.
The following day, Isenhart and his thanes prepared to leave for Normark. The jarlinna watched from a window on one of the upper floors. She was a woman in her early forties, though the life of a noblewoman had ensured that the years had not left much trace on her.
“My lady,” a voice spoke softly, startling Halla. She turned around quickly and visibly relaxed as she saw who it was.
“Athelgar,” she smiled at the youth. “You should be more careful,” she continued, turning back to glance at her husband below through the window. “You must not provoke him so.”
“He needs to think I am a sullen, empty-headed boy,” Athelgar replied dismissively. “So far it is working perfectly. I had to make him annoyed at me, lest he might demand I join him and my father visiting the landgraves,” he said and moved to the windowsill, his body turned towards her.
“It does not seem worth it,” Halla argued, moving one hand up to tenderly touch Athelgar’s wounded face.
“But it is,” Athelgar claimed. “I knew that causing trouble in Middanhal would make him send me away. I also knew that it would not be my only punishment.” He shivered slightly at her touch upon his healing wound, but he did not recoil. She shifted to place her hand against his cheek instead. “These months is the only time we can be sure that he is away,” Athelgar continued. “I had to find some way to return to you while he was gone.”
“If you had become hurt for your own sake,” Halla replied, “I might have accepted that as your choice. But I feel ill knowing that he brutalised you for my sake.”
“This?” Athelgar said nonchalantly, gesturing towards his broken nose though careful not to come too close. “I have had worse. This is not the first nor the last time I will receive a punch.”
“That is what I fear,” the jarlinna said quietly, though her voice had an insistent tone. “One day it will go further. Or he will learn the truth about us. In his rage, there is no telling what he might do.”
“Then we should not let our fear poison the moment,” Athelgar argued. “We suffer enough when he is present. Shall we now also cower in his absence? He will be gone for weeks now. When he finally returns to lead his army south, I must go as well. The gods seem to grant us short time only. I say we enjoy it to the fullest,” he told her with a smile. The jarlinna did not answer in words but simply returned his smile and nodded slightly.
In the end, Isenhart was gone about two weeks. After Normark, the jarl returned to Silfrisarn for one night only before he left to pay the other northern landgraves a visit. Out of a number of six, four of them had pledged to his cause so far, either because they were prepared to follow him as their king or because they had family as hostages in Middanhal. Isenhart cared little for the reason as long as they mustered their soldiers and sent them to Silfrisarn. Only when he was satisfied did he return to his city.
The muster was not yet complete when Isenhart was once more in his capital, taking his seat at the end of the table in the great hall. Conversation during the evening meal was quiet and mostly revolved around the jarl being reminded by Athelbold of various details from their latest journey.
“My lord jarl,” Athelgar began to ask. “With time to spare, will you be taking your journey to the mines as custom this summer?”
“Do not remind me,” Isenhart replied. “I have a war to plan. I cannot be distracted by such petty affairs.”
“Perhaps,” Athelbold interjected, “I could relieve you of this burden. You have no need of me here until the army is assembled. Let me go to Iston in your place,” he suggested.
“But Father,” Athelgar objected, “it is the duty of the jarl of Isarn to pass verdict upon the criminals. Surely the judgement of any lesser man will not suffice.”
“You doubt my wisdom, boy?” Athelbold asked sharply.
“I only wish to see matters done appropriately,” the young man smiled sardonically.
“In that case, you should be silent when your elders speak and trust their judgement above your own,” his father reprimanded him.
“Quiet,” Isenhart intervened. “You bicker like women. I have no interest in this. Athelbold, you will go. Handle this for me,” the jarl commanded.
Athelbold inclined his head. “As you wish, my lord,” he spoke, sending his son a sharp look of warning. Athelgar remained silent.
Iston was a mining town at the southern edge of the jarldom of Isarn where it met the Weolcan Mountains. It had originally been a small outpost through which iron ore had been transported. The wars between Adalrik and Vidrevi had once threatened to depopulate it; in the years following the victories of Adalrik, the area had become stabilised. Furthermore, as the miners gradually lost the hospitality of Silfrisarn, Iston had become their new home. Despite the wealth of the region, this was not reflected here, since all riches were sent north or east. Instead, Iston was considered a poor town, dirty and uncouth. To smelt the extracted ore, large furnaces burned through the day, fuelled by coal from Thusund. With most of the inhabitants employed in this industry, it was typical to see their faces, hands, and arms blackened by dirt and smoke. This had given rise to the disdainful ekename swartlings denominating a person from Isarn.
Only a few houses in Iston showed any signs of wealth or luxury. The primary one belonged to the magistrate. His position was unique in Adalrik as an adopted idea originally from Ealond. Typically, a village would be ruled by its council of elders, towns by their local guilds and alderman, and cities by the local lord. Iston had no guild, however, since barely any craftsmen resided in the town save the bare necessities. It was too large for a council of elders, but rather than place the area under a vassal such as their margraves, the jarls of Isarn had chosen to remain in direct control of the town. The question of maintaining rule had been solved by establishing the position of a magistrate; he was a deputy with the powers of the jarl in day-to-day matters yet without being a nobleman or having influence otherwise.
This limitation held one practical importance; the magistrate might only pass sentence in criminal matters to a certain degree, such as petty thefts and minor brawls, but not instances where serious harm had been inflicted towards either a person’s life and health or their wealth. This also meant that when lawbreakers were sent to Iston to serve in the mines as their punishment, the magistrate did not hold authority to measure out the exact number of years they were to be punished; only the jarl or one of close rank equipped with the jarl’s authority, such as his cousin, might do so. Typically the jarl of Isarn were to visit Iston once a year to see this done, but the current jarl had little interest in this; it was not the first time that Athelbold was sent to take his place. Thus one rainy evening, Athelbold arrived at the magistrate’s office and was shown quarters and hospitality; the next day, he took seat in the town square to sit in judgement.
The habit of sending criminals to the mines was relatively new in Adalrik, a custom adopted from Hæthiod and its salt mines, albeit with certain changes and complications. In Hæthiod, the salt mines were used regardless of offence committed, and sometimes even regardless of rank; it was a useful way to remove troublemakers without causing the backlash that execution sometimes elicited.
In Adalrik, only two types of punishment existed originally. All crimes carried a geld, a tax to pay as compensation. Regardless of whether one had stolen an apple or killed a man, every action had a price attached to it, half of which was paid to the Crown and the other half paid to the victim or their family. For harsher offences such as murder, the culprit would typically suffer exile as well; the protection of the law was withdrawn from them, and any man might freely kill the exiled criminal without retribution.
However, not all offenders were able to pay the geld incurred for their crimes; others deliberately chose the mines over exile. Whatever the cause, any criminal unable or unwilling to pay his geld was sent to Iston instead. The jarldom of Isarn paid the geld for them, and in return, the debtor would work the mines a number of years. The exact number depended on their geld – and the jarl, since it was ultimately for him to decide how many years a man should toil until his debt was repaid. It was to make this judgement that Athelbold now sat in the town square with the magistrate by his one hand and a scribe by the other.
“Next,” the magistrate commanded.
“Giselhard from Cragstan,” the scribe called out, and the prisoner was brought forth by a pair of guards to stand scowling. “For the crime of murder during a dispute,” the clerk read aloud. “A weregeld of nine hundred silver eagles is owed.”
“What was the dispute?” Athelbold asked. When the prisoner did not reply immediately, Athelbold repeated his question, and one of the guards slapped Giselhard on the back of his head.
“He offended me,” the murderer said with a disinterested voice.
One of the guards slapped him again. “Address his lordship properly!”
“Milord,” Giselhard jeered.
“Nine years,” Athelbold said curtly.
“What! That’s three times more than my geld is worth,” Giselhard protested. One of the guards knocked the blunt end of his spear into the prisoner’s back, and he fell forward.
“Next,” the magistrate spoke, and the murderer was removed from the square.
“Wiglaf of Bjarburg,” the scribe read, and the aforementioned was brought forward. “For the crime of theft from his lord. A geld of three hundred silver is owed.”
“He is a beorn?” Athelbold asked of the scribe, who nodded.
“Yes,” the latter confirmed.
“What did you steal?” Athelbold questioned the prisoner.
“Jewellery,” Wiglaf muttered.
“Speak up,” a guard commanded with a push.
“Why?” Athelbold demanded to know.
“What do you care?” Wiglaf sneered.
“Answer!” a soldier growled with another push.
“Tired of having nothing,” Wiglaf mumbled with a defiant glare.
Athelbold frowned for a moment. “Two years,” he decided, and the prisoner was led away.
“Sindbert from Ashton,” the scribe read in his monotonous voice. “For the crime of theft from a merchant. A geld of fifty silver.”
“You could not pay a geld of fifty silver?” Athelbold asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No, milord,” Sindbert admitted.
“What did you steal?” the nobleman asked.
“Two loaves of bread,” came the answer.
Athelbold considered for a moment. “Three months.”
“Milord,” the magistrate exclaimed. “That is –” He was silenced by a look from Athelbold as the latter merely turned his head towards the magistrate. “Next,” the official said meekly.
“Radwin from Oakfirth,” the scribe called out. “For the crime of causing serious injury without cause. A geld of three hundred silver.”
Athelbold measured the prisoner with his gaze, a large fellow with a vicious look to him. “Five years.” Upon hearing this, the newly minted miner for the next five years gave a hollow laughter as he was led away.
“Erlemund from Middanhal,” the scribe said. “Murder most foul without cause. A geld of eighteen hundred silver.”
“You killed a nobleman?” Athelbold asked with raised eyebrows. The man before him was slender and had neither the build nor the posture of a warrior or one at all accustomed to fighting. Rather he looked like a craftsman of some delicate art such as tailoring. He wore ragged clothes and had the layers of dirt that inevitably clung to those working daily in the mines.
“A thane to Lord Linstead, milord,” Erlemund said tonelessly.
“How?” Athelbold asked, curiosity taking shape on his face.
“On Laugday,” Erlemund said, weariness creeping into his voice. “When he was in his bath. Snuck in and stabbed him.”
“Why?” Athelbold enquired.
“He desecrated my wife.”
“If that were true, he would stand before me, not you,” Athelbold argued, leaning back.
“My wife’s testimony was not sufficient evidence compared to Lord Linstead, who swore that his thane was with him at the time,” Erlemund spoke, his voice now cracking slightly.
“By the looks of you,” Athelbold said contemplatively, “you have already been working the mines.”
“Yes, milord,” Erlemund answered. “I arrived more than two years ago and was put to work immediately, waiting until I could receive my final judgement from you, milord.”
“What was your profession in Middanhal?” Athelbold asked next.
“A glove maker, milord.”
“Milord,” the magistrate said a little anxiously, “there are many others awaiting judgement. Might we –” A raised hand from Athelbold was enough to make him cut his sentence short.
“Do you have children?” Athelbold enquired.
“Two sons, milord, and one daughter. The eldest was my apprentice. Very good too, should his lordship ever need gloves,” Erlemund said with a dead smile.
Athelbold stroke his beard, still leant back in his seat. “Erlemund from Middanhal, your sentence will be two years.”
“But milord,” the magistrate protested, “it is custom for eighteen years at the very least to repay such a geld, and easily twice that!”
“If you question my judgement again,” Athelbold said in a dangerously affable voice, “I will pass my next sentence on you.”
The magistrate swallowed. “Yes, milord. Take him away,” he ordered the guards.
“Did you mishear me?” Athelbold said sharply. “Or was I unclear? Did I not say two years?”
“Of course, milord,” the magistrate bowed as deeply as he could. “I thought you wanted to proceed.”
“First we must resolve this matter in full,” Athelbold said as if explaining something simple. “This man has been here two years already, has he not? His geld has been paid.”
“Milord?” Erlemund said, his voice breaking and his face showing bewilderment.
“Strike his chains,” Athelbold commanded the guards. “This man is free to leave.”
The soldiers were momentarily confounded and exchanged looks; it seemed a development they had never experienced before. Finally, they figured out where the keys to the chains were and unlocked them. Confusion flowed like waves through the crowd as they watched the former prisoner released; nobody was more mystified than Erlemund, however, as he made his way out of the square, unhindered and with constant glances towards the guards.
“Next,” Athelbold said mildly.
It took the rest of the day and all of the following to finish the sentencing. When Athelbold was done, it was evening and too late to travel; thus, he retired to the magistrate’s house to spend a final night there. Before he reached his room, however, his host caught up to him.
“Milord, may I speak with you?” the magistrate said.
“Be swift. I am tired,” Athelbold replied.
“Of course, milord,” the official answered with a bow. “You are aware that the jarl pays the geld of those sent to Iston, of course,” he said haltingly.
“Since you know I am aware, why bother mention it?” Athelbold said brusquely.
“Forgive me, milord, it was merely meant to broach the topic. See, I am responsible for ensuring that operations go well here and that the jarl is ensured a profit. When a prisoner has cost the jarl eighteen hundred silver in geld, and he only works here for two years,” the magistrate said with a tad of anxiety, “it is costly for the jarl.”
“I think my cousin will survive losing money on one worker,” Athelbold remarked casually.
“It is not only him,” the magistrate urged. “Others of your decisions these last days will be costly. I will be forced to mention it in my report. Unless of course your lordship reconsiders.”
Athelbold laughed. “You think the jarl reads your reports? You think he cares one whit for the intricacies of your administration?”
“Milord,” the magistrate exclaimed aghast. “I would think the jarl would be interested in the difference between a handful of gold crowns or hundreds.”
“Hundreds,” Athelbold said derisively. “Do not exaggerate the impact of my presence. Now consider this. If the jarl is made aware that less gold is earned on his mines, do you think he will care for your excuses? You are the one he placed in charge of this town, after all. I know my cousin well,” Athelbold continued with a wolf’s smile. “He has little patience in general and least of all for listening to his servants pleading excuses. Goodnight, magistrate.”
It took Athelbold a few days to make the return trip to Silfrisarn. Upon the approach to the city, he found the outskirts were no longer empty fields but lined with tents and soldiers hurrying about. As he rode into the courtyard of the keep, he was greeted by Athelgar. “Hallo, Father,” the young man said.
“My son,” Athelbold replied as he dismounted. “I see the army is gathered.”
“Just in time too,” Athelgar said. “I would not seek out our cousin if I were you. He is in a bad mood.”
“What happened?” Athelbold asked with a frown.
“One of our patrols was ambushed between here and Middanhal. Only one man escaped to bring word, but it happened at night and he could tell us nothing. Not even who the attackers were. Coward fled immediately,” Athelgar related with a disdainful voice. “We have sent scouts, but none have returned yet.”
“It is many days’ ride to the capital,” Athelbold pointed out. “We cannot expect to hear back so soon.”
“Regardless,” Athelgar continued, “our kinsman is eager to ride out. To put it mildly. Within the hour if possible.”
Athelbold patted the mane of his horse and glanced around. “Take care of my horse,” he commanded the nearest stable hand, “and have a fresh horse saddled for me. It would seem that Middanhal awaits us.”