56. Salt and Swords
Salt and Swords
Before dawn, Leander lay awake in bed. He glanced with envy to his side, where Theodora slept peacefully. The flacon provided by the physician was empty, providing no further sleep. He got out of bed only to shiver as he left the warm covers; this close to winter solstice, even Plenmont was cold. Pacing around the room in circles, he soon abandoned his march without a destination. Returning to the covers, he dug out the silver raven hanging around his neck and clasped it tightly.
In the hour after dawn, the sun was too low on the horizon to send its feeble rays inside the courtyard of the Order keep, which subsequently was gripped by shadows. Despite the cold and early hour, several scores of men were gathered outside. Every rank was represented from footman to marshal, and they formed an uneven circle. Inside stood Flavius, prince of Aquila, known as Ironside for his prowess in battle. Dismounting a small distance away was Hubert, count of Esmarch, followed by a yawning Leander and a few Queen’s Blades.
“You did not have to come,” Hubert told his king, “but I appreciate your presence.”
“I have no better plans today,” Leander replied indifferently. “Though I am unconvinced this holds much purpose. If you want to train, any of the Blades will give you good fight.”
“You think I challenged him on a whim, boy?” Hubert shook his head. “He is the loudest voice speaking against Korndale intervening in Hæthiod. When I put a few dents in his armour and his teeth, his voice will count for less.”
“I see,” Leander frowned. “That is actually clever.”
“I will disregard the surprise in your voice,” Hubert muttered, striding towards the informal circle of men awaiting him.
Both combatants had removed the sword scabbards from their belts, accepting a blunt blade instead. Each had his customary surcoat and shield, however, emblazoned with their respective heraldry. As this was but a training bout, no courtesies were exchanged, no declarations spoken; they simply nodded to each other and assumed stance.
Both men watched the other like a hawk. Whenever one stepped forward, the other mirrored it. Still the distance between them was too great that either’s blade could reach the other. Impatient shouts from some of the spectators could be heard, spurring the warriors on. Elbow jabs from the veteran soldiers, who better understood what each move meant, silenced those eager voices.
A sudden lunge forward from Hubert was followed by a swift thrust forward, crossing over to strike at Flavius’ sword arm below the shoulder. The prince brought his shield up, knocking Hubert’s sword aside. A few encouraging yells erupted, only to quickly die down.
Once more the careful circling around. Again Hubert stepped forward, this time pushing his shield up high. It was not close enough to strike the prince, but it blocked his field of vision, preventing him from seeing Hubert’s sword strike against his knee just above the greaves. The blade hit, twisting Flavius’ leg, making him stumble. Loud cheers were heard, especially from the few heathmen present. Before Hubert could follow up on his advantage, however, the prince regained his footing and pushed upwards, shield against shield, forcing the count backwards.
Both retreated a few paces, leaving Flavius near the edge of the circle. Gripping the hilt of his sword tightly, Hubert’s mouth curled in a sneer briefly and leapt forward. He launched a series of assaults, keeping Flavius defending. The prince’s back was against the circle, limiting his movements, but his expression remained cool. He denied each attack, letting his opponent wear himself out.
No sound was heard other than metal, wood, leather, and fabric clashing, until Hubert at length stepped back with a snarl.
No longer beleaguered, the prince stepped forward, and the fighters began circling each other again as they had in the beginning. A few groans could be heard from somewhere in the crowd.
The sun had managed to rise above the walls, shining down into the courtyard. As both warriors exchanged blows continuously, their sweat blended together with the smell of leather and weapon oil. The circle surrounding them became a little wider.
With the onset of fatigue, their movements grew less careful, less precise. Each attacked whenever they saw an opening, only to be denied. Beads of sweat trickled past their eyebrows to hinder their sight. Their hands were growing numb from the hard grip on their sword hilts. Each had tears in his surcoat. Both were muttering curses under laboured breathing.
Eventually their weariness led the mistakes, blows hitting marks. Due to their armour and blunted weapons, however, little more than bruises would be the result. Although appearing worn, Hubert attacked with his customary impetus, striking and receiving strikes in return. It did not matter how many times Flavius punished the count for his aggressive behaviour; nothing seemed to dampen his desire to be offensive.
Finally, the prince of Aquila retreated a step. “Enough,” he spoke hoarsely. “I believe we have both learned what could be gained.”
Hubert had been on the verge of another assault, but he halted himself; after a moment’s consideration, he nodded slowly. “I thank you for the opportunity to hone my skills,” he told his opponent, clearing his throat several times.
Servants with cups of lukewarm, diluted wine offered the beverages to the exhausted men, who afterwards each retired from the already dissolving circle; with the entertainment gone, the interest of the spectators had evaporated.
The Queen’s Blades were quick to compliment their leader as he joined them, while the king had less to say. “He was good,” Leander remarked briefly.
“They do not call him Ironside without reason,” Hubert growled; the wine had done little to soothe his parched throat.
“I suppose nothing gained, nothing lost.”
“This might have been a draw,” the count of Esmarch admitted grudgingly, “but we will continue whittling these Dalemen down until they acquiesce.”
“Let us return to the palace until then,” Leander declared. “I am cold.”
As the king of Hæthiod departed with his countrymen, Flavius took another cup of wine in the courtyard. By his side stood the marshal of Korndale, who had witnessed the fight. “Well fought!” he told the prince.
“I could not beat him,” Flavius muttered in between quenching his thirst. “I thought for sure his aggressive style would leave him tired soon, but he was relentless.”
“It was an impressive display of skill,” Ferdinand nodded to himself.
“He may be the best I have ever fought,” the prince admitted, handing his cup to a servant and removing his helmet to wipe his brow.
“You held your ground admirably,” the marshal continued.
“I did nothing,” Flavius grumbled, leaving without further words.
Plenmont had its share of palaces and majestic residences. Many belonged to the nobility; of those commonborn, the grandest home was owned by the richest merchant in the city, who also served as alderman of Plenmont. Inside one of its stately halls sat two men by a large table, richly decorated with carvings. Each man wore a golden chain around his waist, signalling that he held same title as alderman as the owner of the house, albeit in other cities.
One of the many sets of doors in the room opened, allowing entry to the master of the house. Unlike his peers, dressed in furs and jewellery and with waistlines that stretched their golden chains due to an affluent life, the alderman of Plenmont was lean and dressed only for warmth, not wealth.
“Master Rufus, Master Felix,” the alderman spoke. “Welcome to my home.”
Rufus nodded in response as their host took a seat by the end of the table, though Felix did not share his quiet attitude. “Master Fabian,” he spoke sourly, “I am in no mood for pleasantries. What is the reason you made us travel here? I will miss the solstice feast at home,” he complained.
“My pardons,” Fabian replied with an affable smile. “Time is short.”
“What is amiss?” asked Rufus.
“I have been summoned to a council of the king to advise him on the ramifications, should or should he not intervene in Hæthiod,” the alderman from Plenmont explained. “It takes place the day after solstice, so it was necessary we meet now.”
“About time,” Felix grumbled. “We need the outlanders kicked out of Hæthiod at once. Our salt stores are dwindling.”
“How long will they last?” asked Fabian.
“Enough to last winter,” the alderman from Florentia replied. “It will not last past the next.”
“If you lack the salt to cure the meat, can you not sell the animals before slaughter?” Fabian asked next.
“With the recent ravages of war, southern Adalrik will be in need,” argued Rufus. “There is little risk either with peace restored. Ideal conditions.”
“With the outlanders in Hæthiod and barely any Order armies to hold them back, I can’t tell my merchants to send their wares to Ingmond,” Felix argued. “The black boots are sure to raid. It’ll have to be in Ealond instead.”
“I cannot support that,” Rufus spoke quietly. “There is word that the duke of Belvoir is gathering troops, most likely to launch an attack upon Tricaster.” The alderman from that very city looked at his companions. “We should not allow him to feed his troops with our meat.”
“How certain is this attack?” Fabian questioned. “To break the peace of the Alliance… the duke must have the support of his king, and even then it seems a dubious plan.”
“The Order is stretched thin,” Rufus pointed out. “Hæthiod is in enemy hands, and the garrisons of Adalrik and Ealond have been emptied to retake it. With no basileus and the Order weakened, who will punish Ealond for attacking us?”
“Even if there isn’t a basileus, Adalrik still has a ruler,” Felix from Florentia argued. “The jarl of Vale, isn’t it? He will have to act.”
“He has no authority over the Order,” Fabian spoke contemplatively. “Only the Order can punish the duke for attacking Korndale. It will be years before there is a king in Middanhal again, and by then, much may have changed.”
“We cannot keep the duke of Belvoir from gaining arms or soldiers,” Rufus from Tricaster admitted. “But an army without provisions is no army at all. We must cease all sale to Ealond.”
Felix hesitated a moment. “Agreed,” he grumbled. “But that makes it all the more urgent that Hæthiod is liberated. If the salt mines are not soon returned to our control, we will starve.”
“That seems an anxious statement,” countered Rufus. “We may not be able to cure our meat, but there will be plenty of other food to eat. Sending our soldiers to Hæthiod leaves Tricaster open for the duke to attack.”
“If he attacks,” Felix pointed out. “Without salt, starvation is guaranteed.”
“It will only be hastened by intervention in Hæthiod,” Rufus argued. “If the king is to mount a campaign and send his soldiers abroad, they will need provisions, which the cities will be required to provide.”
“Provisions including cured meat,” Fabian finished Rufus’ point.
“It will not matter if we empty our salt stores,” the alderman from Florentia claimed, “if Hæthiod is retaken and the supply of salt restored.”
“If,” Rufus replied. “It seems highly unlikely the outlanders can be defeated for good in but a single year. Why waste not only our salt stores but also our soldiers?”
“They need not retake all of Hæthiod,” Felix argued loudly. “Strike from Ingmond and take Polisals, all our concerns are at rest.”
“Fail in the assault, and our concerns have only just begun,” Rufus said quietly.
“Thank you,” Fabian from Plenmont interceded quickly before Felix could reply. “Let us take some time to consider it all and meet again tonight. My servants will have prepared rooms for you both, and naturally, you are guests of the guilds for solstice.” The other aldermen mumbled their gratitude, after which the men dispersed.
In the afternoon, Beatrice made her way towards the chambers occupied by her sister. After she was admitted, Isabel rose to meet her, and there was a moment of silence before either spoke.
“I am glad to see you well,” Beatrice finally uttered.
“As I am glad to see you,” Isabel replied in a neutral voice.
“It has been many years.”
“Over a decade,” Isabel pointed out, her voice still toneless. “You came to Middanhal to celebrate the birth of my son.”
“Right,” her sister mumbled. “Strange circumstances that we should meet again in Plenmont.”
Isabel sat down again, gesturing for the other woman to do the same. “No stranger than so many other events of late.”
“Still, we were all surprised when you arrived. We had no word in advance.”
“I did not know you were in Plenmont,” Isabel explained.
“Then what brought you here?” asked Beatrice.
“The king is our kinsman, albeit distantly. I had no desire to remain in Adalrik, and I obviously could not return to Tothmor,” her sister pointed out. “Where else should I go?”
“We are merely surprised you did not seek us out after your arrival,” Beatrice elaborated. “You spend the meals in the king’s company, avoiding ours.”
“I avoid nothing,” Isabel replied with dismissive laughter. “We are speaking now, are we not?”
“If you intend to continue seeking out the king’s company –”
“He seeks out mine,” Isabel interjected.
“Of course,” Beatrice conceded. “Since you have his ear, could you measure his intentions towards Hæthiod?”
“I do not discuss such matters with Adelard.”
“Surely he would not mind,” Beatrice argued.
“I will be forthright with you,” Isabel told her sister. “I have no interest in Hæthiod or its fate. The outlanders are welcome to it for all I care.”
“You cannot be serious,” Beatrice exclaimed aghast. “It is your home as much as mine!”
“It was,” Isabel corrected her coldly. “It has not been for twenty years, and it never will be again.”
“How can you care so little? We spent all our years as children there, together!” Beatrice argued.
“And then I turned twenty-one, and I was sent to Middanhal as if I were a crate of salt,” Isabel retorted acidly.
“You were sent to marry the future high king,” Beatrice countered. “It was an honour shown to you.”
“Let me tell you of the honour shown to me,” Isabel sneered. “Ten years spent trying to conceive, three miscarriages and one stillborn child. Ten years with every sibyl and lay brother in the city examining me, studying me, and prescribing their vile methods for ensuring my children’s health. Ten years of my father-in-law hating me, the ladies at court scorning me, and my own husband seeking any excuse to avoid me!”
“I am deeply grieved to hear that,” her sister spoke faintly.
“As if I were the problem when everyone knew that the old king had just as much trouble conceiving an heir,” Isabel continued. “But they could never accept this truth concerning their precious blood of Sigvard, so all blame fell to me. And when I finally had a healthy boy, when my husband finally began to appreciate me, what happened? They took them both from me,” she finished with her face twisted into a hateful expression.
“Isabel, my heart bleeds for all you have suffered,” Beatrice began to say.
“Perhaps, but that does me little good. Twenty years at that court have taught me everything I need, and that does not include sympathy.”
“I consider it best if you leave now, Sister.”
Beatrice was on the verge of speaking again, but looking at Isabel’s face, she remained silent and left the room instead.
Elsewhere in the palace, the remainder of the Hæthian exiles were gathered in the chambers of their queen.
“I can make a second attempt at duelling him, Your Majesty,” Hubert suggested.
“I think we have exhausted our possibilities with the prince of Aquila,” Irene said pointedly.
“Indeed. There does not seem to be any possibility of changing his mind,” Theodora agreed. “We will have to sway the king by other means.”
“Such as?” Leander asked in a tired voice.
“King Adelard has other counsellors. Failing that, we appeal to him directly,” Theodora declared.
“The seneschal keeps him inaccessible,” her husband retorted. “We are running out of options.”
“If you are quite done assuming defeat,” Irene told him sharply, “we should look elsewhere. The seneschal may have the king on strings, but someone else is pulling those strings.”
“Who?” asked Theodora.
“I have been told the seneschal holds meetings with the queen mother,” Irene explained with a satisfied expression.
“Another old hag gripping power tightly with her gnarled fingers,” Leander muttered. “We should have expected as much.”
“As we should have expected yet another useless king,” Irene sneered.
“Enough!” Theodora exclaimed. Swallowing his reply, Leander drank deeply from a cup of wine instead. “If the queen mother can be persuaded to help us, we must explore that possibility,” Theodora declared.
“How might we persuade her?” asked Hubert. “We have no ties to her, no cause to call upon her aid other than what virtue and nobility proscribe.”
“She will not help us out of the goodness of her heart, no,” Irene said dryly. “But Queen Sigrid is dragonborn, and while the drakonians may not admit it, her son could be counted as one. With the Dragon Throne vacant, I imagine her eyes have turned north many times of late.”
“It is not empty,” Leander interjected, his voice a tad slurry. “They put that boy on it.”
“He may sit upon it, but it will not be his for several years,” Irene retorted. “The Adalthing gave it to him, and they may take it back.”
“Regardless, how might that help us?” asked Theodora. “We are hardly in a position to aid the queen or her son in achieving this.”
“I have an idea,” Irene declared, her expression satisfied once more. “Leave the queen mother to me.”
The conversation was interrupted by Beatrice arriving. She took seat next to her daughter while shaking her head. “Isabel would not listen to me. She could not care less for the fate of Hæthiod or us.”
“Disappointing,” Irene replied, “but to be expected. She did not come to Korndale for our sake.”
“Is there none others we might rely on?”
“The alderman,” Hubert suddenly spoke. “If Korndale goes to war, the cities will have to pay for it.”
“Yes, the king will tell the cities to pay,” Irene said dismissively. “He will not ask this moneygrubber for permission or whether they can pay.”
“It is not merely a question of coin,” Hubert retorted. “Weapons, supplies, food. The king might very well rely upon the alderman’s information to make his decision.”
“If so, we should ensure that information is friendly to our cause,” Theodora declared.
“Should I speak with him, Your Majesty?” Hubert suggested hesitantly. “It may appear unseemly for any member of the royal family to have dealings with this – merchant.”
“Let us use that to our advantage,” Theodora replied. “We will see how the alderman deals with a queen.”
“Very good, Your Majesty,” Hubert nodded. Next to him, Leander emptied his cup.
As night fell, activity in the palace gradually declined. The remaining holdout where light and conversation still continued until late was the kitchen. This was not merely due to servants carrying out chores but also caused by the presence of the acting troupe.
“What I want to know is,” said one servant, “when are you actually going to play on a harp?”
“All in good time, my friend,” replied the leader of the actors with a smile. “You shall be well entertained. Alain of Egnil’s Harps gives you his word.”
“Yeah, see, because with a name like that,” the servant continued, “I reckoned you were here to play the harp.”
“We have planned a most magnificent play,” Alain told his audience. “It will be spoken of for years to come, and any who will hear that you were in attendance that particular solstice feast shall be green with envy.”
“But I haven’t even seen a harp among all your gear.”
“If you will forgive me, I should see to our preparations.” Standing up from the benches, the actor let his smiles and winks flow freely as he passed through the servants, leaving the kitchen.
Entering the courtyard, Alain walked over to the assembly of carts and wagons belonging to his troupe. Climbing into one of them, he moved a few items around until finally pulling a blanket away. This revealed a small crate with bars, keeping a handful of pigeons imprisoned. The creatures cooed as he opened the small hatch to grab one of them. Docile, the pigeon patiently allowed Alain to tie a strip of paper to its leg. This accomplished, he released the pigeon into the air, and it quickly beat its wings flying west towards Ealond.