44. Knights and Jarls
Knights and Jarls
After the council had been held concerning the fate of the hostages, Theodoric left the northern side of the Citadel and walked courtside. If he had walked to the edge of the inner castle, he would have seen Brand and the kingthanes prepare for their deception and assault upon the Isarn house; the jarl of Theodstan remained inwards, however, and sought out his former quarters. Entering, he found them quiet and abandoned. “Anyone here? Holwyn?” he asked, closing the door behind him.
“Milord?” a voice answered. From one of the chambers, Holwine appeared wearing a smile.
The jarl closed the distance between them and kissed his servant. With his hands, he framed the face belonging to the object of his affections and spoke with a voice brimming with concern. “Are you well? Unharmed?”
Holwine kept her smile and removed the cap that kept her long locks and true nature hidden. “I am well, milord, though I feared the worst. The bastards outside, they claimed that you had been defeated at Lake Myr. I thought…” She did not complete the sentence.
“It happened thus, but it did not stop us,” Theodoric assured her. “At least for now things are in order. How have you been here?”
“It has been some interesting weeks,” Holwine said slowly. “I admit, I never thought I would be weary of dressing in men’s clothes, but the ruse can grow tiresome.”
“It is better this way,” Theodoric told her. “If you dressed according to your true appearance, you would find it much harder to carry out your tasks.”
“The tasks you bestow on me,” the woman spoke with a coy look. “I carry out your will, not mine. But worry not, milord,” she continued, tugging her hair into place under her cap. “I shall play my part for as long as I must, whatever shape it takes.”
“I have no doubt,” Theodoric smiled, placing another kiss on her lips. “Now you must tell me what I have missed.”
“I think you know better than I, milord,” Holwine admitted. “I have not left this castle for weeks. What of your sister? And Holebert. Have they not been freed yet?”
Theodoric shook his head. “They remain captives at the Isarn house. At least that is what I suspect. I had hoped to be able to negotiate for their release, but I am foiled by hotspurs and novices,” he spoke bitterly.
“Theodoric,” Holwine said cautiously. “What is going on?”
“As we speak, a young squire with little knowledge of war is preparing to assault Isarn’s house,” the jarl grimaced.
“How did he acquire such a command?”
“Richard follows his every advice to the point that this squire, Adalbrand, is in command, not Richard. Everything we have done has been his thought carried out. Crossing the Weolcans, attacking Middanhal, and now endangering all the lives of the hostages,” Theodoric spoke ranting.
“You crossed the mountains?” Holwine said impressed. “And attacked Middanhal straight after?”
“We did,” Theodoric said grimly. “And costly it was too. Our army is much diminished in size.”
“But it worked,” Holwine pointed out. “No one would have believed that the Order could retake the capital so swiftly.”
“True,” the jarl was forced to admit. “I am not arguing results, only risk. Everything this Adalbrand does carries immense danger. Sooner or later, he will overstep. He has been fortunate that no real obstacle stood in his way here. Taking this city from Isenwald the halfwit is not surprising, but what if Athelstan had been here? What will happen when our young hotspur wishes to fight Athelstan and his inexperience leads to a crushing defeat?”
“So what do we do?” asked Holwine.
“Richard is out of my reach,” Theodoric speculated, “but if I can make Theobald see reason, perhaps something can be done. He is my kinsman after all, however distantly. That is a concern for later, however. For now, I must accept that Theodwyn’s fate is in that upstart’s hands. Gods, I will make Adalbrand regret his arrogance if he returns from this attack and she does not,” the jarl swore while biting his lip.
“Come,” Holwine said kindly, taking the jarl’s hand to pull him towards the door. “Let us find a vantage point to observe the courtyard. We will know the moment they return and whether Lady Theodwyn is with them. Meanwhile, you may listen and pay suitable admiration to tales of my exploits while I was trapped inside this place.”
It was not long after that news spread of the fight at the Isarn house and the return of the kingthanes to the Citadel. Already before they reached the fortress, soldiers stopped their work to watch the procession of the warriors and the freed hostages. As tidings were shouted that the city was now fully under Order control, many curious commoners dared to leave their homes and join the spectators. Soon, cries of joy and admiration were heard as the people showered their gratitude on kingthanes and Order soldiers alike.
Reaching the Citadel, Brand led the procession into the courtyard. It was impossible to say who exactly began; such detail was soon lost in the ensuing noise. The only certainty was that someone began the shout, speaking now ancient words, ‘Sigvard’s blood, Sigvard’s blood,’ and soon the chant rose to a clamour. Fist beating chest, the soldiers roared loudly as Brand passed by. His expression was neutral, and he gave no clear sign of delight nor displeasure; he simply acknowledged the men by inclining his head towards them in each direction as he led his sister inside. From one of the windows overlooking the courtyard, Theodoric watched with an expression of unbridled concern.
“Quite an ordeal,” Theodoric said as he was once again reunited with his sister and they had returned to their old quarters in the Citadel. The jarl hesitated slightly before he posed a question. “How many of the hostages died in the attack?”
“At least three,” Theodwyn replied. “Four, I suppose it would be more correct to say.”
“How so?” her brother questioned.
“The lady Richilde and her son were slain,” Theodwyn explained. “But she was also with child.”
Theodoric’s expression became contorted with sorrow. “What a tragedy,” he expressed at length. “I do not envy the man who shall break such tidings to Ingmond. Losing his wife and child – children,” the jarl corrected himself. “I knew the attack was dangerous. I knew we should have negotiated rather than force our way through like thick-headed louts.”
“It is another list to Isenhart’s misdeeds,” Theodwyn agreed, “though I wonder if it could have ended in any way but blood. The captain of his thanes,” the woman shuddered. “I would claim not much rattles me, but his eyes felt like the chill of death.”
“He is in chains now,” Theodoric said in a reassuring voice. “His days are done.” The jarl waited a moment before he spoke again. “Who was the fourth victim? You mentioned four.”
“Lord Jaunis,” Theodwyn told her brother.
This made Theodoric lean back in his seat. “I wonder if that was on purpose or coincidence. They certainly hit the marks high when they began executing their prisoners.”
“I know,” Theodwyn nodded. “Ingmond’s wife and children, Valerian’s father-in-law. The South will never forgive the House of Isarn this.”
“Indeed not,” Theodoric assented. “How is Holebert?” he asked next. The servant in question was in the other room, his bruises and marks being attended to by his own sister.
“They handled him a bit rough, the brutes,” Theodwyn told her brother. “But the norns came and tended to his wounds, and they look to have healed. Mind you, I did not see him since the first evening. We have been kept isolated. On most matters even about this very city, I would wager you know as much as I do.”
“I have heard about Sir Roderic,” Theodoric said. “They say it was the captain’s refusal to open the castle gates that prompted the knight marshal to be executed. It seemed tactless to ask the captain whether such was true,” he added dryly.
“The captain did right,” Theodwyn said with disdain. “The knight marshal was spineless. At the first threat he caved to Isenhart and signed whatever was placed in front of him.”
“What did he sign?” Theodoric frowned.
“A document calling for an extraordinary assembly of the Adalthing,” Theodwyn said with a wave.
“Of course,” Theodoric considered, “that was Isenhart’s plan. Assemble the Thing, force it to declare him the new heir.”
“I told Sir Roderic not to sign, but he bowed to pressure immediately,” Theodwyn sneered.
“Where is that document now?” Theodoric asked with sudden urgency.
“Unless Isenhart brought it with him, it remains in the house, I presume,” his sister answered.
Swiftly Theodoric rose and crossed the room to open a chamber door, revealing Holwine and Holebert behind it. The former was removing bandages from the latter and examining the damaged skin beneath. “Holwyn,” the jarl called out. “I have a task for you. It cannot be delayed.”
“As milord commands,” Holwine said with a sarcastic smile. “What do you require?”
“I need you to find a way into Isarn’s house. You must find a document, most likely in the jarl’s study. It authorises an extraordinary assembly of the Adalthing, and it will be signed by Sir Roderic, our former dragonlord.”
“As you wish,” Holwine said and bowed her head slightly. Disguising her head under her cap, she patted her brother’s shoulder affectionately and disappeared.
“I should leave as well,” Theodoric mentioned. “The others are meeting to discuss our next strategy now that the city is fully under our control. Holebert,” he added, glancing through the door opening at his servant. “Take the contents of my purse and buy yourself something to drink. You have earned it.”
“Yes, milord,” Holebert grinned, adjusting his bandages.
“I am taking a bath, regardless of what weekday it is,” Theodwyn declared. “I deserve as much.”
“That you do, sister dear,” Theodoric said with a faint smile, squeezing her shoulder before he left.
Unlike the previous council, which had been rather improvised and taken place in the captain’s quarters, the various leaders met in the proper place designated for such purpose. It was the council room of the Order, where less than two months ago, the lord marshal had planned the campaign in Hæthiod, though none of the same people was present.
When Theodoric arrived, the others had already assembled, and seated at the end was Richard. Although not the nominal leader of the Order, he was currently the commander of its remaining forces, and there was none left with higher authority. By one hand sat Theobald, captain of the Citadel; by the other was Brand, first lieutenant and thus in practice the second-in-command of the Order forces in Adalrik even as his actual rank was merely squire. Next to Theobald sat Fionn, the only other remaining knight in the realm, while Berimund had taken the seat next to Brand.
“Theodoric,” Theobald greeted him. “This is Sir Fionn, who has been my right hand in defending this castle. At our last meeting, he was occupied attacking the north-western barricades, destroying the enemy with his usual fervour.”
“Was not hard,” Fionn remarked casually after having exchanged nods with Theodoric. “They could only block the main streets, after all. Moved around them through the alleys and hit them hard,” he grinned as Theodoric took a seat next to him.
“Now that the city has been restored to us,” Theobald continued, “we should discuss what to do next. Isarn will obviously seek to retake it.”
“How are our forces looking?” Richard asked.
“I would estimate we have some fifteen hundred men battle ready,” Theobald stated.
“Not much to hold the city with,” Fionn acknowledged. “Not against a prolonged siege. Sir Athelstan may be preoccupied south, but we cannot stop the jarl from attacking us north.”
“We have his son and heir as prisoner,” Brand pointed out. “That might give him pause.”
Hearing this, Theodoric gave a hollow laughter. “You underestimate Isenhart’s ruthlessness.” His laughter ended and his voice grew sharp. “After all, did not your attack against Isarn’s estate in this city cause the deaths of Lady Richilde, her son, her unborn child, and Lord Jaunis?”
“A tragedy to be sure –” Brand began to say.
“This does not give you pause? None of you?” Theodoric interrupted, glancing around at the others, and several of them looked away uncomfortably.
“We all grieve their loss, Theodoric,” Theobald said with a disarming gesture. “Their deaths will not be forgotten,” the captain continued with a glance towards Brand. “But our most pressing concern is the Isarn army coming from the north. That must remain the subject of our debate. As Sir Fionn mentioned, we need more troops. When may we expect reinforcements from Theodstan?”
“The muster has only just begun,” Theodoric muttered. “It will be at least another week before it is close to completion.”
“How long will it take them to march to Middanhal from Cragstan?” Theobald asked.
“If forced, perhaps four to five days,” the jarl estimated.
“While your men were originally ordered to march once the conscription was done, perhaps we should increase the pace,” Brand considered, keeping his gaze locked on Theodoric. “May I suggest that you send a messenger to Cragstan at once, my lord jarl. Tell whatever troops you have available now to immediately march for the capital with all possible speed. It is better to have half your forces available once Jarl Isarn arrives than have all your forces arrive too late,” the squire said pointedly.
“You may hold that opinion,” Theodoric said with assumed civility.
“He is right,” Richard said gruffly. “We need your men today rather than tomorrow, Theodoric.”
“Indeed. We cannot risk Middanhal falling to the rebels again,” Theobald warned.
The jarl glanced around the room and saw the remaining men nodding in agreement. “I shall give the order as soon as our council is done,” Theodoric said slowly in a reluctant tone.
“What about Sir Athelstan?” asked Fionn. “He is the greater danger, in my opinion.”
“Most of us here are personally familiar with the Heohlond campaign,” Theobald said, glancing at Richard. “Gods, I am reminded of it every time I have to limp somewhere, and that highlander spear,” he said sardonically. “None of us are in doubt of what Sir Athelstan is capable of.”
“Thankfully, we have excellent knowledge of his whereabouts,” Richard grinned. “Athelstan has been kind enough to send word to Middanhal of his victories. After defeating Marcaster, Athelstan has entered Vale’s lands to invade the jarldom from the south. Our enemy is in the other end of the realm, deeply entrenched and surrounded by Vale’s forces. It will hardly be possible for him to stroll out of that situation.”
“Do not underestimate Athelstan’s ability to extricate his forces,” Brand warned. “But in any case, Jarl Isarn will be here long before his brother. Defeating his army on the battlefield should be our first concern. Once the jarl has been beaten back to Silfrisarn, we may turn our thoughts towards Athelstan.”
“Defeat?” Theodoric exclaimed. “You intend more than defending this city? You would seek to actively engage Isenhart’s army that comes now from the north, despite the fact that we will most likely face superior numbers?”
“Of course,” Brand frowned. “We will not win this war by simply waiting and enduring a siege.”
“Why not?” Theodoric spoke in a questioning tone of voice. “Jarl Vale will not be idle. He will gather his forces and sooner or later put an end to this. We need only buy him time, deprive Athelstan of reinforcements and support.”
Brand gave a derisive laughter. “Of course, you see no fault in letting this war play out between the jarls. You are not a member of the Order. I sometimes forget given your presence in our councils and your inclinations towards commanding Order forces.”
“What is your point?” Theodoric asked acerbically.
“That this war is the Order’s responsibility. Jarl Vale will play his part according to what the Order commands him, and it will be the Order that defeats Jarl Isarn, not another jarl,” Brand said with an equally venomous voice.
“The Order?” Theodoric asked and leaned forward with a sudden jerk. “Or you?”
“In this matter, I see no difference,” Brand said coldly; unlike the jarl, he remained seated and merely raised his eyes to meet Theodoric’s gaze.
“My lord knights, you see no danger in this line of thinking?” Theodoric exclaimed, turning to look at Richard, Theobald, and Fionn.
“Calm yourself, Theodoric,” Theobald finally said, and the jarl leaned back in his seat with reluctance painted on his face. “Our young lieutenant is right. It is the Order’s foremost duty to maintain the peace of the realms. That is why in times of war, the Order holds authority and not the jarls.”
“Furthermore,” Fionn added, “we cannot risk ending in a situation where the jarl besieges us from the north and his brother from the south. One of Middanhal’s greatest strengths is that it is impossible to encircle the city and fully enclose it. While I advocate caution going against Sir Athelstan on the field, we cannot endure that he lays siege to us without having our northern gate open for reinforcements. Attacking the lesser of two enemies, Jarl Isarn, and driving him back is sound tactical thinking,” the knight declared, to which Richard murmured his assent.
“Lord Berimund?” Theodoric asked with increasing despair.
“I am not skilled in tactics,” the kingthane admitted with a disinterested voice. “I accept what they say.”
“I see,” Theodoric said, stressing both words. “You are all agreed then.”
“I believe so,” Theobald replied. “Once forces from Theodstan arrive, we should attack Jarl Isarn’s army,” he summarised, looking at Richard for confirmation, who nodded in agreement.
“We may be severely outnumbered,” Theodoric said in warning rather than giving up. “I may only be able to bring a few thousand men in time. Even if you can defeat Isenhart, what happens when our losses are so heavy that we cannot defend the city against Athelstan?”
“Excellent point,” Brand conceded, prompting a surprised look from Theodoric. “Which is why we should open the Order for recruitment this very day. Have the town criers announce that we are beginning new conscription.”
“The Order already conscripted and filled its banners,” Theodoric pointed out with thinly veiled satisfaction. “I doubt you will find any left in the city who can be persuaded to join.”
“The Order recruited for war in Hæthiod, yes,” Brand retorted. “A distant campaign in another realm against an enemy unknown to the people of Middanhal. This war?” he asked rhetorically, answering his own question. “We are fighting usurpers who have already once held Middanhal in a tyrannical grip. Did you not see how our men were greeted as we entered the city? My lord jarl, we will not be recruiting men to be soldiers,” the squire said with an overbearing voice, “we are recruiting them to be heroes.”
There was silence until it was broken by Richard’s laughter. “My lieutenant is right. We start recruiting today. They may not be ready in time to face the jarl Isarn, but they will serve as a decent garrison to defend the city, freeing up our veterans to make mincemeat of Isarn.”
“I will alert the town criers,” Theobald nodded. “The sooner we begin training the better.”
“I think that concludes our council,” Richard said. “I am parched.”
The others nodded and rose from their seats, scrambling the chairs. “Do not forget to send word to Cragstan,” Brand said mildly, directed at Theodoric. “We shall need your men at the earliest possibility.” The jarl did not reply with words but simply a grimace that might be interpreted as affirmative.
Leaving the council chamber, Theodoric moved through the Citadel to return courtside. His face wore a scowl, and any servants he encountered were quick to vanish from his path. Reaching the quarters he shared with his sister, he stopped outside the doors and looked at one of his thanes standing guard. “I need you to procure a horse and ride north,” the jarl told his servant. “Ride to Cragstan and tell them to march all available forces to Middanhal now. Immediately,” Theodoric commanded, speaking as reluctantly as possible while still actually pronouncing words.
The thane bowed and left without further delay while Theodoric entered the chambers and went straight for the wine pitcher. Sloshing over his cup as he poured, he downed most of its content. From a nearby couch, Theodwyn watched with a raised eyebrow. “Looks like you could use a relaxing bath yourself, brother dear,” she remarked casually.
“He tied my hands,” Theodoric muttered. “Forced my move.”
“What are you mumbling about?” his sister asked.
“I never thought we would succeed,” he said, turning swiftly to face her. “I wanted to keep my forces back, spare them from certain disaster. I never thought that a boy greener than the Alfskog and a drunk like Richard would be the first to conquer Middanhal in centuries!” he all but shouted.
“You may want to keep your voice down,” Theodwyn warned.
“I was left with no choice,” Theodoric continued unabashed. “If I do not send my soldiers here, Middanhal may fall and I will be to blame. Yet if I commit them to this fight, odds are that they will all perish under his command!”
“What will you do?” Theodwyn asked.
“It has already been done,” Theodoric said bitterly. “I already sent the message. As I said, I had no choice.”
“Then spend no further thought on it. You have days to work something out,” Theodwyn reminded Theodoric. “You should focus your efforts on that rather than gripe in vain.”
“You are right,” he admitted, growing calmer. “Of course. I will think of something.”
“There we are,” Theodwyn smiled. “Much more productive. Now I think I shall lie down. I have not had restful sleep in weeks.”
“You and me both,” Theodoric muttered, but his sister did not hear; she was already on her way to her chamber.
When Brand left the council room, he found both his sergeant and two kingthanes waiting for him. Brand raised an eyebrow looking at Matthew, who had no other answer than an ignorant shrug. As Brand began walking, both sergeant and kingthanes followed him until they reached his quarters; two more kingthanes stood guarding the door. With another puzzled glance, Brand entered the parlour, followed only by Matthew.
“Sister,” Brand greeted Arndis with a smile.
“Brother dear,” she replied in equal measure and glanced behind him at Matthew. She rose from her seat. “And this would be?” she asked in a kind manner.
“Matthew, my sergeant,” Brand introduced. “This is the lady Arndis.”
“A pleasure,” Arndis said with a charming smile.
“Yes,” Matthew stammered and gave a deep bow, hiding his blush momentarily.
“Where did you find him?” Arndis asked.
“He found me,” Brand replied casually, taking a seat and reaching for an apple. “Been following me ever since Lake Myr.”
“Where are you from, Matthew?” Arndis asked in a friendly voice, sitting down as well.
“Here, milady,” Matthew answered, glancing everywhere but at Arndis. “Well, not the Citadel, but this town. Other end of it,” he managed to explain.
“I see,” Arndis said amused. “Brand, if he has been through all you have been through, the poor boy must be exhausted. Perhaps you should excuse him?”
“Oh, I was not at the fight now, milady,” Matthew was quick to explain. “His lordship commanded me to stay behind,” he added with a little disappointment seeping through.
“You are a good sergeant, Matthew,” Brand explained while carefully cutting his apple into pieces, “but the battle at Isarn’s house was a fight for kingthanes and knights, not former stable boys with little training. You will have other chances to prove your courage.”
“Yes, milord,” Matthew replied.
“Regardless, my sister is right. I have no further need for you until we ride out again,” Brand told his sergeant. “Go to the steward of the Citadel and have him assign you somewhere to sleep. If you tell him I sent you, he should be co-operative. I will send for you again when the time comes.”
“Yes, milord,” Matthew said with a bow. “Milady,” he added, bowing before Arndis as well before he left.
Once alone in the parlour, Arndis turned towards her brother. “How did the council go?”
“As it should,” Brand nodded, putting a small piece of apple in his mouth, chewing and swallowing it before he continued. “I had no opposition except from Jarl Theodstan, which was to be expected. He and I have been at odds for some time now.”
“A shame,” Arndis remarked. “His sister was of much comfort to me, and she remains one of my few friends here.”
“I shall be grateful to her for that,” Brand promised, “but do not forget that she had advance knowledge of Jarl Isarn’s plans, and yet she did not shield you.”
“She did suggest I stayed at the Citadel,” Arndis argued, though without conviction.
“To little avail,” Brand countered. “And even the Citadel was not safe. It could easily have gone wrong for us trying to retake the city. You might very well have been a prisoner still.”
“Theodwyn did what seemed right to her,” Arndis said. “She was trying to protect us all, not just me.”
“I understand,” Brand nodded, “but remember the choice she made. It was not you. Beware the siblings of Theodstan, Sister. At the end of the day, we cannot trust others.”
“You have my trust, Brother,” Arndis assured him. “Above all others.”
This prompted a rare, unrestrained, and genuine smile from Brand. “I never doubted that.”
Arndis hesitated before she spoke again. “At the council, was the subject raised of Lady Richilde or the – the other victims?”
“It was mentioned, yes,” Brand nodded slightly. “The jarl Theodstan, who was against my plan from the start, was less tactful about it than you.”
“While I am immensely relieved to be free from that place,” Arndis spoke cautiously, “I do grieve that it was at such a cost. Not that I blame you, Brother,” she hurried to add, biting her lip.
“I am to blame,” Brand interjected in a casual manner, though his voice was not entirely steady. “It was my decision to attack, and it was I who convinced the others.” Arndis did not speak but simply looked at her brother with a sympathetic expression. “I knew there would be a cost to pay from the moment I told Sir Richard to cross the mountains. Hundreds of dead lie on those stony paths with no other burial than what snow winter will bring.” Brand raised his eyes to look at his sister. “But it is too late to change course. I must see this through, I must end this war. I cannot allow these knights or jarls or even the common soldiers to see me waver. Not until this is finished. If I feed their doubt even a little by showing any myself, they will devour me. This is my own, my only chance to make my name.”
“I understand,” Arndis nodded. “As I said, I trust in everything you do.”
“I know,” was Brand’s only reply, but the heavy expression on his face eased slightly.
There was a slight pause before either spoke again. “Now what is this outside our door,” Arndis asked abruptly, nodding towards the mentioned object. “I went to the bath house and they were simply there, two kingthanes waiting for me, following me without a word. Is this your doing?” she asked, glancing at him with playful suspicion.
“In this I am innocent,” Brand spoke with a faint smile. “I have my own shadows, appearing as unexpected as yours. I suspect Lord Berimund is behind it.”
“Their captain, I recall,” Arndis nodded. “I met him once. That is strange though. I have never heard of the kingthanes protecting any but the royal family.”
“There are none left,” her brother pointed out. “Yet they are thanes, and their life is to protect others. It would seem we are their new choice.”
“I cannot complain,” she admitted. “With all that has happened, it is reassuring.”
“Good,” Brand declared. “Now you must excuse me. I feel as if I have not had rest in an age,” he confessed and retired to his private chamber. Despite his claims of weariness, however, sleep came late to him.