50. The Right Dagger
The Right Dagger
The following day, a small party left Middanhal and travelled some ten miles to the camp of the Vale forces, which now flew the banner of Hardling; the surcoats of every soldier remained red and gold, however. The group consisted of Richard, Brand, Fionn, and a handful of men-at-arms acting as their bodyguard. Entering the tented area, their eyes glanced in various directions, taking it all in until they reached the centre of the camp. Unlike the Order, the quarters for the commanders were not kept separate. Two tents, dwarfing the others in size, had been raised here. In front of each was planted a banner, respectively; one showed a boar, while the other depicted three golden spirals.
From the latter issued Konstans, brother to the jarl of Vale. Wearing a smile, he extended his arms in an invitational gesture. “My lords, I am pleased to welcome you to our camp.”
Richard gave an indecipherable snort, while Brand phrased himself with greater eloquence. “We are glad to be here, Lord Konstans, and to see the armies of Vale fighting at our side.”
“Forgive me, I do not recall introductions,” Konstans said, narrowing his eyes slightly.
“I am Adalbrand of House Arnling,” the squire introduced himself.
“A pleasure,” the nobleman of Vale simply remarked before returning to the topic at hand. “While your words honour me, they should be aimed at Lord Hardmar. It is his achievement that this army stands here, ready to fight these insurgents,” Konstans claimed. “In fact, his lordship is waiting for us in my tent. Shall we?” he said, gesturing towards the open entrance. He waited until the two knights and the squire had entered first and followed behind them.
The tent was already occupied. Arion the chamberlain stood modestly to the side, attracting little attention. A thane was present as well, but standing alone in the centre was a young nobleman scarcely above seventeen years of age. He was handsome and wore a smile as the others entered, dressed in blue and brown.
“Lord Hardmar, may I present the leaders of the Order in Adalrik,” Konstans said, introducing them. “Sir Richard of Alwood, Sir Fionn of Cairn Donn, and Lord Adalbrand of House Arnling,” he gestured towards each of them in turn. “My lords, I present Lord Hardmar of House Hardling, an atheling of Sigvard through his descendant, High King Sighard.”
As Konstans spoke, Hardmar inclined his head in greeting before he raised his eyes to look at Brand. The latter had entered flanked by the knights, meaning he was directly opposite Hardmar. Now they gazed at each other, the two athelings of Sigvard. While other descendants such as the king of Korndale could be found, these two were the eldest of their lines from father to son, of which there were no others; none had stronger claim than Adalbrand and Hardmar. Two months ago, they had been lords of minor houses and bereft of influence; now they might conceivably gain the seat holding the greatest power in the known world. For the first time since the death of Prince Sigmund and the game of succession began, their eyes locked.
Both wore the blue in some places, though Brand had the surcoat of the Order and Hardmar the one of his house. Both had the dark hair common among Sigvard’s line, but Brand’s skin was as pale as his mother’s people, while Hardmar had the brown colour more custom in the South. Brand stood taller, whereas Hardmar had broad shoulders; the former had almost hollow cheeks and a cool expression, the latter had a face that found it easy to smile.
“My lord,” Brand spoke, inclining his head to return Hardmar’s greeting. The knights echoed his gesture.
“I must congratulate you on your victories,” the young Hardmar spoke, aimed at Richard. “Is the rumour true that you crossed the Weolcans and retook the capital by assaulting it at night?”
“Not a rumour, just the truth,” Richard said gruffly.
“Impressive,” Hardmar complimented.
“We hope to keep that up,” Richard remarked. “This time against Athelstan.”
“You intend to face Athelstan?” Konstans asked, his voice uncertain.
“Got to get rid of him at some point,” Richard declared in a casual tone of voice.
“That sounds… bold,” Konstans spoke, choosing the last word with care.
“Impossible rather. At least until you were good enough to join us,” Fionn said mildly, prompting a strained smile from Konstans. “Now we have the numbers for it. Eight thousand strong.”
“I suppose that is a reasonable advantage against Athelstan’s five thousand,” Konstans considered.
“Closer to seven,” Brand corrected. “He has grown his ranks since the war started.”
“Marvellous,” the Vale nobleman muttered.
“These numbers are of little consequence,” Brand said dismissively. “The real danger is his cavalry. From what we gather, he has many hundred.”
“You fear his horsemen?” Hardmar asked.
“If used properly, which Athelstan understands how to do, they can easily decide the battle,” Brand stated.
“What will you do?” Hardmar continued, glancing at Richard.
“Stop them,” Brand simply said.
“I see,” Hardmar smiled.
“You had no need to journey here merely to inform us of this,” Konstans said. “A simple message telling us to prepare for march would have been enough. Did you come here for some other purpose?”
“Most perceptive, Lord Konstans,” Brand admitted. “We wished to inspect your troops before we return to Middanhal. “
“Of course,” Konstans nodded. “I shall accompany you.”
“There is no need to trouble you,” Brand told him. “We will handle it on our own.”
“Very well,” Konstans assented.
“When the battle does take place,” Hardmar now spoke, “I should prefer to be by your side, Sir Richard. I would like to see how exactly you will defeat the renowned Athelstan.”
“I should desire that as well,” Konstans interjected.
“Stick with me and you will get a closer look than you care,” Richard laughed. “I plan to be on the front line, lad,” he told Hardmar, whose smile grew strained briefly.
“I thought you were the captain of the Order army,” Konstans frowned, “and these your lieutenants.” He glanced at Brand and Fionn.
“That I am,” Richard nodded, “and as captain, I place myself with the foot soldiers.”
“Well, if you place such trust in your lieutenant, I shall do the same,” Konstans declared, bowing his head slightly towards Fionn.
“I am sure our friend Adalbrand is pleased to hear that,” the knight grinned. “Considering it will be his company you will be keeping. He is the first lieutenant,” Fionn explained. “I am just here to make sure the footmen turn their spears the right direction.”
“Forgive me,” Konstans said puzzled. “I merely thought I saw the spurs of a squire upon you,” he spoke directed at Adalbrand.
“Perceptive indeed,” Brand smiled. “That is my station within the Order. Fortunately, that did not keep me from defeating Jarl Isarn, nor shall it hinder me when we face his brother.”
“Is that so,” Konstans muttered slowly. “Very well, my lords. When do we march?”
“Tomorrow,” Brand told him. “Follow the Kingsroad to Middanhal in the early hours. We will meet up with you.”
“Until tomorrow then,” Hardmar smiled, and the Order commanders took leave and left the tent.
When alone, Hardmar turned to look at Konstans. “You claimed this Adalbrand was dead or in Hæthiod,” he said quietly with narrowed eyes.
“I only realised a few days ago that the Order army escaped Lake Myr,” Konstans defended himself, “that it is in fact the same army that now holds Middanhal. Regardless, it holds no difference.”
“You made certain promises, Lord Konstans,” Hardmar said with a menacing edge to his tone. “House Hardling entered this war because of what you promised. We have made ourselves enemies of Isarn because of you.”
“Joining us was the only reasonable step for House Hardling to take,” Konstans spoke with a hint of a sneer enveloping the two last words. “Eventually, Isarn would never have allowed a rival such as yourself in peace. At least this way, you stand a chance to gain something.”
“Yes, a vague possibility, it would seem, now that all my forces are to be wasted against Athelstan,” Hardmar growled.
“The banner is yours,” Konstans countered, “but you should not forget what colours the soldiers wear on their coats.”
“It is irrelevant now,” Hardmar scoffed. “The appearance of this Adalbrand, all too alive and fighting, nay, leading the Order, is the frustration of all our plans!”
“Calm yourself,” Konstans said coolly. “It is nearly a year until the Adalthing convenes. Nearly a year to prepare, plan, I will need nothing more. Do not forget you are in league with the most powerful nobleman in the realm.”
“You?” Hardmar said incredulously.
“My brother,” Konstans said, clenching his jaw. “The jarl of Vale. Do not worry. My brother always honours his agreements. You shall have what was promised to you.”
“In that case, I eagerly look forward to observing how that will take place,” Hardmar said with feigned courtesy. Konstans only reply was a curt nod before he turned around and left the tent.
It was past noon when the Order commanders returned to Middanhal. In the southern courtyard as they dismounted, a pair of kingthanes immediately appeared and took position near Brand. Their captain was present as well, but Berimund had other priorities; crossing the open area, he entered the stable buildings. The smell of horse, already permeating the courtyard itself, struck him with increased potency as he went inside. This was despite nearly all the stalls being empty, but Berimund’s destination was not the creatures themselves. Instead, he passed them by until he reached another part of the small complex where the carriages were.
The exact one used by Prince Sigmund on his last journey was not here. The kingthanes had set it on fire, perhaps to be rid of something cursed by the spilling of innocent blood, perhaps as a reminder of ancient times when bodies were burned, not buried, a funeral pyre without flesh or bone to devour. Instead, Sigmund now slept in the great cavern underneath Wyrmpeak while the captain of his kingthanes examined the carriages in the stables; all of them were built by the same hands and thus identical to the one that had been burned.
In one hand, Berimund held an arrow; in the other, he had a bow. He stood some distance from the carriage and notched the arrow, drawing it back; releasing his bow, he watched the arrow follow its arc through the air until it struck through the window of the carriage. Again and again, the kingthane repeated this movement at varying distances, changing the arc of the arrow. An hour was spent by the kingthane, attacking the carriage from every angle; finally, with an embittered expression and a fire slowly igniting in his eyes, Berimund left.
Inside the Citadel, Richard and Brand had retired to the former’s quarters. It was among the simplest kind in the fortress, a cell intended for one person with an alcove for their servant. Richard sat down on the bed while Brand took the only chair. “Now that those of questionable courage are not present,” Richard said coarsely, “let us speak plainly. Do we have a plan for the battle?”
“We do,” Brand nodded. “I will need to consult a map and our scouts. Probably spend a day finding a suitable location for the battle. The terrain will be key.”
“And Athelstan’s cavalry?” Richard asked, one eyebrow raised.
“I have a plan for that as well,” Brand stated. “We need to determine our lieutenants.”
“Fionn is the only guaranteed candidate,” the knight claimed.
“Quite,” the squire nodded. “I will need him on one of the flanks or the reserves, depending on how the battlefield is formed.”
“As you wish,” Richard assented. “For the other flank? Bowmen?”
“Let the archers remain in the city. We have too few to make a difference,” Brand frowned. “Select two men-at-arms for the remaining positions. You will know better than me whom to choose.”
“Very well,” Richard agreed. “I will do so now.”
“Good. I have my own task to perform,” Brand declared.
“How cryptic,” Richard snorted. “What are you up to?”
“You have heard the saying, ‘a single dagger in the right place may win a war’, I presume,” Brand spoke.
“Something those effeminate rivermen say,” the knight said with disdain.
“In our case, it is a matter of the right dagger, rather,” Brand said. “I must find us the one that will defeat Athelstan.”
Theodoric, not part of the army marching out and thus not privy to the councils of its commanders, had spent the morning in his chambers. Theodwyn was there as well; the siblings were engaged in idle talk for once, enjoying a breakfast consisting of bread, fruit, porridge, and ale to drink. There was a knock on the door, and Holebert went to answer it. Opening it ajar, Holebert swung the door wide to let the jarl and his sister see the visitor for themselves.
“Geberic,” Theodoric said with a slight frown, “you have no need to knock. Come, enter.”
“Your pardons, milord,” the sergeant replied as he stepped forward, “I suppose I am a little unsure and wanted to do everything proper like.”
“That sounds ominous,” Theodoric remarked with a brief laugh directed at Theodwyn, who gave a smile as she put a strawberry in her mouth.
“Me and some of the lads, your thanes, milord,” Geberic said, scratching his grey beard, “we wanted to ask a favour of you…”
“Speak,” Theodoric encouraged, gesturing with his hand in invitation.
“We hear that the army is marching out to fight Sir Athelstan,” Geberic began slowly. “Most folks are saying it can only end in defeat.”
“We will not be going,” his master specified. “Only the Order army.”
“There’s the rub, milord,” the sergeant continued. “We want to join them.”
“You want to join?” Theodoric repeated surprised.
“See, the lads and me, we feel that we owe a debt. It won’t sit well with us to never repay it,” Geberic explained haltingly.
“What debt do you speak of?” Theodoric asked with a frown.
“To the lieutenant,” Geberic clarified, sounding uncomfortable. “The young lord, Adalbrand. We owe him.”
“What on earth do you owe him?” the jarl exclaimed.
“For Lake Myr,” Geberic said. Seeing the puzzled expression on his master’s face, he elaborated. “Your lordship was not with us at the time when Sir Athelstan attacked. We were in the other part of the camp with Lord Adalbrand. In fact, we were on the verge of arresting him,” the sergeant spoke, sounding embarrassed.
“Perhaps you should have,” Theodoric muttered under his breath. “Go on,” he gestured to Geberic.
“When the others attacked, everything was confusion. Lord Adalbrand, he kept his head cool, gave orders. He held the assault back, kept us from breaking into a rout. Probably saved our lives, too,” the aged sergeant explained.
“You feel that you owe him for that,” Theodoric nodded as he finally understood.
“We know the kingthanes won’t protect his lordship beyond the city. At Bradon, we fought with you, milord, as we are always willing to do,” Geberic hastily added, “but this battle, since your lordship will remain in Middanhal…” his voice trailed off before he continued. “It seems like now is the time for us. Especially if the battle will go ill as they foretell. This may be our last chance to repay our debt.”
“Although you all seem inclined to believe that the battle will be lost,” Theodoric spoke with disbelief in his voice, “you still wish to do this?”
“We are your thanes, your servants, milord,” Geberic said with a shrug. “It’s our duty to die for another. With your permission, we wish to go.”
Theodoric leaned back in his seat while his eyes scrutinised his sergeant in front of him. “If you feel your honour prescribes this, so be it. You have my leave.”
“Thank you, milord,” Geberic exclaimed. “We shall bring honour to your house upon the field.”
“I have no doubt,” Theodoric said, although his eyes were drifting elsewhere, and with a gesture, he dismissed the sergeant. When the latter had gone, the jarl turned towards his sister. “It would seem even my own sworn men prefer Adalbrand,” he exhaled.
“I do not think it was meant that way,” Theodwyn said calmly. “They felt their honour demanded this course of action.”
“Course of action?” Theodoric repeated. “They are prepared to face certain death for him.”
“I admit, he seems to inspire loyalty. A family trait, apparently,” his sister remarked as she cut a pear into pieces.
“Loyalty or seduction?” the jarl asked. “I am not sure any man deserves the loyalty of others if it will end in death for all involved.”
“Perhaps it will not,” Theodwyn suggested, offering the plate of sliced pear to her brother, who shook his head. “You defeated Isenhart, did you not? I would not underestimate this young Arnling,” she spoke, feeding pieces of pear into her mouth.
“I was not at Cairn Donn,” Theodoric replied, “but I have heard the story from Richard, Theobald, and a dozen others, and I have heard it a dozen times from each. If there is one man you should not underestimate, it is Athelstan. He will not allow you to make that mistake twice,” he warned. “But at least if Adalbrand is defeated, it will shake the sense of invincibility that he has conjured up to surround him.”
“And if he is invincible?” Theodwyn argued. “What will you do if Adalbrand returns with victory?”
“Then I fear we will have a greater crisis on our hands than anything Isenhart could ever do,” Theodoric said darkly.
Late in the afternoon, Brand left the Citadel. Followed by two kingthanes, he was otherwise alone as he walked the Arnsweg until he reached the Temple square. Here, he turned left and went up the stairs towards the sacred space. At the top, he stepped onto the plateau in front of the great doors, entering into the shade offered by the open roof extending forward from the main building. He told the thanes to wait; their expressions showed their disapproval, but they could not argue. Now a solitary figure, Brand entered the Hall of Holies.
There was as always a number of worshippers present inside the main hall of the Temple, but they swiftly shied away as they saw Brand. He walked the hundred and fifty steps from entrance to altar, kneeling before it and leaning forward until his forehead gently touched the marble. With this done, he moved to the shrine dedicated to Rihimil, the patron of the Order. Kneeling once more, Brand placed every coin in his purse on the altar and whispered inaudible words in prayer. Standing up, he glanced around and gestured for a nearby acolyte in a yellow robe to approach him.
“Yes, milord?” the brother said nervously.
“I need an audience with the Highfather. Please inform him of my request,” Brand spoke briefly.
“The Holy One does not give audiences that way, I believe,” the acolyte stammered. “I don’t actually know. I am in service to Egnil, I tend to the animals.”
“I am a commander of the Order, and this pertains to the defence of the realms,” Brand explained impatiently. “Bring the Highfather my apologies for the breach of custom, but this cannot wait another day. I must speak with him immediately. If you cannot accomplish this, find some who can.”
“Yes, milord,” the priest swallowed and gave a bow before disappearing.
For a long while, Brand remained undisturbed in the hall. His eyes wandered to the painting that covered the wall behind the altar. A trick of the light was in play here to ensure a certain effect. The altar itself was bathed in light, even if one compared it to the rest of the hall and its shrines and alcoves that were well lit. No light was directed towards the wall with the painting that covered the background; this enhanced the impression of illuminating the altar while causing shadows to lie upon everything behind it. This effect was made complete by the deep, dark colours used in the painting.
Its enormous size obscured to some extent exactly what it depicted; Brand’s head turned up and down trying to grasp it all. The painting depicted two figures primarily, similar in colour but different in all other aspects. To the right was a great dragon, black and fearsome. Its jaws were open, and flames could be seen about to emerge from deep within its maw. Its teeth were jagged; its talons seemed sharper than blades. Through different nuances and shades, scales could be seen covering the dragon from its head and backwards towards the rest of its body; at some point, however, these shades faded and only deepest black remained. It seemed as if the dragon appeared or materialised from the very void itself.
Opposite the dragon on the left stood a knight. He too was dark, clad in black armour, the contours of which were made visible with thin, silvery lines. Occasionally, these lines thickened to small points that the lines ran between, such as the knight’s shield; against the dark blue, it seemed like the emblem upon his guard consisted of the stars of heaven’s vault that together formed a larger, seven-pointed star. There were only two true sources of light in the painting; even the fire in the dragon’s maw was made with dark red colours. One such source was the knight’s sword, held defiantly and stretched out against the dragon’s throat; the blade seemed to shine as if made of solid moonlight. The other source was his eyes; while the knight’s face was obscured by helmet and cloth, his eyes appeared like small suns in comparison to the stars on his shield. He was Rihimil, the Black Knight.
“Marvellous, is it not?” a voice softly spoke next to Brand. “I have been here for more than forty years, and still I can get lost staring at it.”
The speaker was a short, aged man wearing a grey robe. The other people in the hall had already given Brand a wide berth, but now it only expanded. “Holy One,” Brand said courteously, bowing his head deeply. “I am Adalbrand of House Arnling, first lieutenant of the Order’s army. I apologise for the haste placed upon this meeting, and I thank you for allowing me audience.”
“Well,” Septimus said with a smile, “it sounded as if I had little choice. Walk with me, my son,” he continued, extending his hand towards the doorway that led to the gardens at the centre of the Temple complex. The fresh air met them, bringing scents of many herbs and other sprouts growing. Numerous men and women in yellow or green robes were tending to them; as the high priest passed by, they greeted him by bowing their heads but otherwise kept their attention on their work.
“What brings the first lieutenant of the Order’s army to the Temple?” Septimus asked, still mirthful.
“I come with two requests, Holy One,” Brand began to say. “As you may know, we march to battle soon.”
“Our prayers shall go with you,” the high priest said; his attention was surveying the fruit around them.
“For which we are grateful, yet I am here to ask for more than that, Holy One,” Brand said tentatively. “I respectfully request that the Templars be released to serve in the Order army for the upcoming battle.”
If this surprised the high priest or had any effect on him, he did not let it show. “The second?” he asked. “You mentioned two requests.”
Brand took a deep breath. “I would ask of you to give me the blessing of Sigvard.”
A smile crept onto Septimus’ face. “You live up to your name, Adalbrand of House Arnling.” He paused momentarily before speaking again. “That is not lightly given.”
“It was once conferred on every descendant of Sigvard,” Brand pointed out. “I should feel more confident marching into this battle with such a blessing bestowed upon me.”
“It is true that it was once given at birth to every dragonborn,” Septimus admitted. He ceased to pace around the gardens and turned to face Brand. “How would you know this? It has not been so for centuries.”
“As a page at the Citadel, I spent many hours in the royal library,” Brand explained with a courteous smile of his own.
“Is that so,” Septimus said contemplatively. “The Templars are meant to defend the Temple, especially in times as these,” he continued, steering the subject elsewhere.
“They are knights before they become Templars. They are still knights,” Brand argued. “Their oath to defend the realms still binds them. The Order has need of them.”
“If they should perish?” the priest asked. “Would you risk having the Temple defenceless?”
“They will not,” Brand declared with confidence.
“You sound very confident,” Septimus remarked and resumed walking; Brand fell into pace next to him.
“In some matters, such as this, I am,” Brand stated. “If the Templars march with us, we will have victory.”
A moment was spent in silence while a pensive look came over Septimus. At length he spoke. “I cannot give you the blessing you seek. It might be misconstrued as a declaration of intent the high priest does not have authority to make,” he explained.
“As you say,” Brand acknowledged, bowing his head slightly.
“As for the other request, I shall let the Templars know they are needed,” Septimus continued.
“Very well, Holy One. I thank you,” Brand answered, bowing his head deeper. “We march tomorrow.”
Septimus stopped again and placed a hand on Brand’s shoulder. “The blessings of the Seven and Eighth shall go with you.”
“Thank you, Holy One,” the young commander said earnestly.
The young squire gave a deep bow and left, stopping briefly at the centre of the gardens to drink from the basin flowing with cool water before walking towards the path out of the Temple. In one of the hallways, an imposing figure came walking in the opposite direction; a shape easily recognisable as Berimund.
“Quite a coincidence, captain,” Brand called out. “What brings you here?”
“I am here to speak with the norns,” Berimund replied without lessening his pace; he brushed past Brand and continued deeper into the complex. Brand watched him with a puzzled expression but continued on his way.
There was a knock on the door to the chambers belonging to the jarl of Theodstan. Holebert opened and turned his head back towards the parlour, where Theodwyn sat. “The captain of the Citadel, milady,” he announced the guest.
“Let the good captain inside,” she spoke with a gesture before her hand returned to her needlework. “Theobald, dear kinsman, to what do we owe the pleasure?”
“I came to speak with your brother,” Theobald said, inclining his head in greeting.
“Go ahead,” Theodwyn nodded towards the jarl’s private chamber. “He has not left it for a while.”
The captain walked over to knock on Theodoric’s door. “Enter,” came the jarl’s voice from inside.
“Theobald,” Theodwyn said kindly, “tell my brother I expect to see him at supper tonight. In case he believes his lack of eating has gone unnoticed,” she added with a louder voice.
With a slightly awkward smile, Theobald nodded and turned away to enter Theodoric’s room. Inside, he found the jarl sitting in a chair by a small table upon which was a furled up document and a chessboard. The pieces were not arranged in any way that made sense according to the rules of the game, however, but were scattered across the board in a pattern not readily understood.
“Disturbing you?” Theobald said gruffly.
“No,” Theodoric shook his head, speaking with a weary voice. “Merely considering possible situations.”
“You have the same concerns as I do?” the captain prodded.
“Tell me what yours are, and I will let you know if mine match,” the jarl gave a hollow smile.
“I fear that the remaining Order forces and Vale’s army will be destroyed in a few days,” Theobald spoke plainly, “once they reach Athelstan.”
“That is one possible situation I have considered,” Theodoric acknowledged.
“And? Still you sit easy?” Theobald said accusingly.
“What would you have me do?” The jarl extended his hands in a gesture conveying hopelessness.
“Something. Anything. Strip them of their authority,” Theobald suggested.
Theodoric gave a bitter laughter. “That is the very problem, is it not? All those who could are dead or gone. Lord marshal and lord protector, knight marshal and dragonlord. I thought I was ingenious when I ensured Sir Reynold became lord protector. Instead it left the realm defenceless,” the jarl spoke. “There are none to dispute Richard’s authority, none to remove him from command.”
“Something must be done,” Theobald insisted. “You are his liege. Can you not influence him?”
“Richard does not think that way,” Theodoric shook his head. “He cares only for the war. He is a soldier, not a leader. I know your next suggestion,” he continued, raising his gaze from the chessboard to look at Theobald. “Could we not convince the soldiers to mutiny?”
“I had in fact not considered that,” Theobald claimed. “That would be a dark path to tread, one which so many others have already stepped upon. If we did this as well, there would barely be a scrap of honour or dignity between the lot of us.”
“Well, I have considered it,” Theodoric freely confessed. “But here is the problem. Richard is always first into the danger, never showing an ounce of fear. Every soldier praises his valour. Being more comfortable in the front line rather than directing the fight, he is all too happy to do as Adalbrand tells him. This makes Adalbrand the true commander, a position for which he is all too skilled. And the soldiers know,” the jarl said with a quiet voice. “They chant his name, they beat their fists and speak ancient words in his honour. He has made them heroes, liberators of Middanhal and saviours of Adalrik. All the taverns ply them with ale, all the maids offer them smiles. They would march into Hel’s deep for him. The soldiers are infatuated with the pair of them, however odd they may seem together. The old hotspur and the young dragonborn.”
“If you can rein in your admiration for a moment,” Theobald spoke with contempt, “all your words would be better directed towards finding a solution. This is what you do, kinsman.” The familiar address was almost sneered. “I remember your boasts, your tall tales of how you twisted the law and the noblemen to your will in the past. Find a way,” he commanded.
“It is too late to stop this battle,” Theodoric declared. “Regardless of our personal feelings, the army will march out and meet Athelstan.”
“What of afterwards?” Theobald asked. “Are you prepared to simply give up, let Isarn win?”
“My forces remain to defend the city,” Theodoric spoke up with sudden sharpness in his voice. “You have four thousand men and more at your disposal. That should last you for months until the marshals of Thusund and Ealond finally intervene. Forget the battle, Cousin,” the jarl told him. “Consider it lost as I do.”
“If your thoughts are so grim, what are you doing in here?” the captain demanded to know.
“Planning for the day after,” Theodoric simply answered as his eyes glanced at the document lying on the table.
“Theodoric, first bell has just rung,” Theodwyn’s voice reached them from the parlour. “Are you coming?”
“Seems I am summoned to supper,” the jarl told his kinsman, smiling with closed lips. Theobald scoffed and left the chamber. The jarl followed a moment later, but not before he had grabbed the document and carefully placed it underneath his tunic.
The Citadel had numerous halls and vaults for many purposes, and three of the largest were most commonly in use. One was the throne room itself. Tall pillars seemingly stretching towards the sky flanked those entering from the southern side; opposite stood the Dragon Throne, the seat of power in Adalmearc. Here, the high kings would hold court and give audience in normal times; naturally, it had been empty these last months except for the servants, who kept it in impeccable condition until a new king could be seated.
The remaining two large halls were mirrors of each other; in daily speech, they were called the great hall and the Order hall. In these, the meals in the Citadel were served; the garrison, the knights and their squires and sergeants all ate in the Order hall in the northern part of the fortress, while the court took their meal in the great hall in the southern part. As a squire and temporary lieutenant commander of the Order, Brand would typically eat in the northern hall. Since he lived at court, however, he was also free to join the courtiers in the great hall, which he often did to keep his sister company.
The two scions of House Arnling had taken their places next to each other near the high table shortly after the first evening bell had rung. On his right hand, Brand was seated next to a landgrave while Arndis had secured a place for Eleanor at her left hand. Conversation seemed in general to run free around the many tables, but there was a touch of tension to the atmosphere nonetheless; outside the hall, in the courtyards and the barracks, the soldiers were making their final preparations to march to battle on the following morrow.
“How long will you be gone?” Arndis asked softly.
“Athelstan’s army is camped two, three days away,” Brand answered. “About a week and we should be back.”
“Will it go as last time? Against the jarl?”
“It will,” her brother nodded. “I doubt I will have occasion to draw my sword.”
“I trust you are right,” Arndis said, cutting her meat.
“You are very brave, Sir Adalbrand,” Eleanor remarked, leaning forward to glance past Arndis and at her brother.
“I am only a squire, Lady Eleanor,” Brand replied with a polite smile.
“Oh, forgive me,” she exclaimed. She had pulled her veil back in order to eat, and embarrassment was evident on her face.
“No need,” Brand assured her. “I expect it will change soon.”
“You may have to remind me,” Eleanor admitted, “so that I will know how to properly address you.”
“As a friend of my sister,” the elder Arnling said in a pleasant voice, “you may at all times address me simply as Brand.”
“Oh,” Eleanor breathed. “How kind,” she added with a slight blush, raising her goblet in front of her face.
Their attention was diverted by Baldric, who was moving around the tables, picking up unused cups. He juggled several of them while laughing and looking elsewhere as if the acrobatic feat was of no difficulty to him. Finally, he placed them on the high table in a row. Picking up a pitcher of wine, he swung it around elegantly without spilling a single drop and let the red content pour over the goblets, filling them without letting any of the wine go to waste. As all cups were full, Baldric made a deep bow under great applause.
With this performance done, the jester distributed the cups. The first went to Isabel, the next to various other ladies at the high table such as Arndis and Eleanor. Grabbing the final one, Baldric gave an overly complicated bow towards Brand and made a frivolous dance as he moved around the high table with the last goblet. His path took him out of everyone’s vision for a few moments as he ducked behind the high chairs; then he emerged again with a grin, steering towards Brand with the last cup.
Without warning, one of the smaller doors at the side burst open. Berimund came charging directly at the high table with murderous intent written across his face. Confusion, almost panic began to spread like rings in the water as he pushed chairs and small tables aside, never diverting his course. People called out in uproar, but the kingthane gave them no heed. Too late did Baldric realise he was the target; one of Berimund’s great hands grabbed the jester and raised him in the air, pushing him against the wall while the other hand clenched around the Baldric’s throat. The cup of wine fell to the ground, spilling its contents on the floor.
“Lord Berimund!” Brand spoke with a strong, stern voice as he rose from his seat. “What is the meaning of this?”
“It was him,” the kingthane said through gritted teeth while Baldric gasped for air. “He did it! He murdered the prince!”
Waves of shock rolled through the gathering at hearing this, nobles and servants alike. “Please,” Baldric croaked, “he has gone mad.”
“My lord,” Brand spoke as calmly as was possible under the circumstances, “you have made such accusations before. I must ask you to release your hold on this man and explain yourself.”
“I know just how slippery this rat is, I am not letting him get away,” Berimund spat, “and this time I am certain. There is no doubt in my mind. I looked at everything, you hear me?” he shouted. Taking a few heavy breaths, the kingthane spoke again. “It would take an archer of impossible skill to hit an arrow through the window of the carriage. Even if that could be done, their arrow would travel in a straight line at best. No matter what, it would have struck the prince in a downward angle.”
“Please,” Baldric breathed, almost inaudibly. “Someone, save me,” he gasped.
Brand frowned but did not move. “Continue,” he said to Berimund.
“I spoke with the norns who prepared the prince’s body for burial. They remember as I do. The wound was underneath the prince’s chin, an upwards angle. Impossible for an arrow to strike that way,” Berimund spoke menacingly, “but a very short person standing on the floor of the carriage, wielding an arrow as a knife, that is exactly the kind of wound he would inflict.”
“Please, please,” Baldric reiterated. “He is mad, help me.”
“Why?” Brand asked, and his eyes turned towards the jester. He paused briefly before he spoke again. “Why would you kill the prince?”
There had been murmurs and whispers constantly while the scene played out; as the question was uttered, silence fell. Baldric, whose expression had been twisted with frantic fear, calmed to some extent. His eyes seemed suddenly to glow with malice. “Why, why indeed. That little brat –” he spoke with contempt, prompting Berimund to tighten his grasp around his throat.
“Let him speak,” Brand commanded. “Who is your master? Upon whose order did you murder the heir?”
“All of you, lords and ladies, so high and noble,” Baldric spat out. “I was not even worthy to lick your boots! If I could not amuse you, I would have been thrown in the river rather than disgust you with my appearance!”
“Tell me your master,” Brand threatened, “or I will not restrain Lord Berimund from his urges.”
“Two dragons I have slain. It would have been a third if not for this oaf,” came the only reply. Baldric gave a wicked grin and planted his front teeth in Berimund’s hand. The large man gave a roar of pain and surprise, his hands losing grasp of the jester. Like an eel, Baldric escaped any attempt to seize him and ran as quickly as his short legs would carry him out of the hall. Several soldiers and some of the noblemen took up the chase.
The fool ran up the stairs to one of the higher floors and down a corridor until his flight came to an end. From both sides, men approached him, blocking his path. With a sneer, the jester jumped up a nearby windowsill and used his knee to kick the window open. “He has awakened,” were Baldric’s final words as he jumped with a maniacal glint in his eyes. His pursuers ran forward, too late to catch him; looking out the window, they beheld where his body hit the ground down in the courtyard. All they saw were brightly coloured clothes sprayed with blood and bits of flesh in a gruesome heap on the paved stones.