76. The Heart of a Hero
The Heart of a Hero
Middanhal barely had time to settle after the shocking tidings regarding the conquest of Tothmor before it happened again. The town criers made themselves hoarse proclaiming the victory over the outlanders near Polisals and the subsequent capture of the city. This provoked even greater jubilations than Tothmor had; merchants sighed in relief, housewives wept from joy, and men everywhere rejoiced knowing that the salt mines at Polisals had been freed, banishing the spectre of famine from everyone’s minds. There would be enough salt to preserve and cure all the food needed to get through next winter. Immediately, the price of salt, which had steadily been rising last year, fell to half of yesterday’s price.
Details of the battle were announced as well, including one particular bit that the town criers revelled in revealing. As the battle for Polisals was hanging in the balance, the young knight Sir Adalbrand charged into the fray. Disdaining danger and defying death, he duelled the enemy captain and slew his foe, demoralising the outlanders and dispatching them to flight. For this deed, the drakonians among the Order soldiers hailed him as Dragonheart upon the battlefield, an honour last bestowed upon the late Prince Sigmar.
In the dark winter days, such stories spread throughout the city with some difficulty at first; people did not like to linger on the streets to listen to town criers, nor were they inclined to leave the comfort of their homes for the purpose of visiting others. Yet being the only recent tale of note, it was eventually retold and recounted at every hearth every night. And each time, embellishments grew a little more, numbers rose a bit, deeds and heroics became greater, and the legend of the Dragonheart increased in stature.
Inside their quarters in the fortress, the Red Hawks were only too happy to leave patrolling of the city and Citadel to the Order soldiers. They crowded around the fireplaces and only went into town reluctantly, usually to procure what could not be found in the castle. Left mostly to their own devices, their activities were primarily gambling with their pay or spending it on drink, preferably both. A few of the mercenaries had taken advantage of this, braving the cold weather to bring back barrels of beer and the occasional delicacies from the market that were available to buy in deep winter.
Having set up an improvised tavern, Jerome the heathman was slowly, but surely filling his pockets. A good deal of his income came from the Dwarf Jorund, whereas their mutual friend Gawad from the south straddled both sides of the fence; some days, he helped Jerome to make a little extra silver, other days he spent that silver to share a drink with Jorund.
On one of the former days, Gawad had brought back the news from town concerning the victory at Polisals; tonight was one of the latter days, where he joined Jorund in drink and dice. “Tell it again,” Jorund pleaded with a wry smile.
“You know every detail,” Gawad complained.
“So make sure you include all of it. Don’t forget the start,” Jorund impressed upon him.
“Anyone else could do it, they all know it as well as me,” Gawad argued.
Jorund shook his head. “They don’t have your lovely way of speaking Mearcspeech. Come on, I’ll give the next round.”
“It’s your turn anyway,” Jerome interjected.
“Then Gawad better tell it if he wants to be sure he gets his next drink,” Jorund claimed with a sour glance at Jerome.
“Fine,” Gawad acquiesced. He cleared his throat. “Hear all, hear all,” he called out, imitating a town crier. “The Order army, only days after victory at Tothmor, has marched north and met the armies of the cruel outlanders upon the plains of Polisals. Outnumbered, wounded, and weary after their latest battle, the Order soldiers were pressed but took victory under the leadership of the knight captain Adalbrand, lord of House Arnling…”
Walking down the stairs to the dungeons, Arndis came to a halt as she saw two Hawks in the guardroom. “You are not Order soldiers,” she said with a light frown.
“Astute,” one of them remarked. “This place is off bounds.”
“I need to see one of the prisoners,” Arndis told them.
“That may be, but it won’t happen. Time to leave, milady.”
“What is the harm in letting me visit?”
“The harm is our lieutenant will keep our pay,” snorted one of the Hawks. “We’re not taking that risk.”
She glanced at the table between the soldiers, which held both dice and scattered playing cards. “Do you men enjoy gambling?” she asked.
“What’s it to you?”
Arndis opened the small coin bag in her belt and took out a handful of silver coins. “I will make a wager with you.” She stacked the coins on the table. “I wager that if you let me inside one of the cells, none will ever be the wiser. If I am wrong, you might have trouble with your lieutenant. If I am right, you get to keep this silver.”
One of the soldiers frowned. “Wait, if you win, we get to keep the coin? That’s not how wagers work.”
The other Hawk stood up. “You half-baked moron,” he sneered at his companion. “She is giving us the coin for looking the other way. Fine by me,” he continued, looking at Arndis. “I already lost this week’s pay, I swear those dice are cursed. Which prisoner?”
“Athelstan of Isarn,” she told him with a smile. “He is that way.”
“Master Quill, did you hear?” Kate was barely past the door before she yelled at her master, short of breath from having rushed up the stairs.
“Kate, you are in the king’s library,” Quill admonished her. “Decorum, please.”
She frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means you should behave and not shout in my library.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
“Better. What is it you wished to tell me?”
“Did you hear about the battle? There was another one, and the Order won!”
“I heard,” Quill smiled. “I do not spend the entirety of my days alone in this tower.”
“Of course,” Kate acknowledged, though there was a tinge of disappointment in her voice. “Someone else told you.”
The old scribe gave a nod. “I took the noon meal in the hall today. Everyone was as eager to share the news as you are.”
“Right.” Kate’s enthusiasm quickly returned. “It’s rather exciting, isn’t it? Egil told me once there would be war, and I didn’t think it would be interesting because it was in another realm, but he was right.”
“It certainly does excite,” Quill granted, “though only because to us, Hæthiod is so far away. Imagine if these were tidings of a battle fought up north between our forces and the rebels of Isarn, and imagine the battle had gone ill. We should all be less excited, I think.”
“I suppose.” Kate’s mood dropped again.
“What might be interesting to consider,” Quill continued, “is that the letter bringing these news to Middanhal was most likely written by Egil.”
“Really?” Her mood as ever-changing as the moon, Kate’s spirit shot upwards at the mention of Egil.
“I think so. He is accompanying Sir Adalbrand as his personal scribe. I imagine he writes all his correspondence and missives.”
Kate blinked a few times. “I can’t imagine Egil in a war camp, surrounded by soldiers and knights on horses. Or near a battle! Do you think he is in danger?”
“No, no.” Quill shook his head. “I am sure Sir Adalbrand would not allow that.”
“Still.” Kate chewed on her lower lip. “Were you not worried about Egil when you sent him so far away?”
“A little,” Quill admitted. “But Egil has many long years ahead of him in this dusty tower. If he is to keep the annals after me and record the history of the Seven Realms, he should have some knowledge and observations of how that history is made.”
“I guess you know best. Even so, I’ll feel better when Egil is home again,” Kate declared.
“Me too,” Quill confessed. “Now, there are pens to sharpen and ink to make. To work!”
“My feint worked. The outlander captain thought I had fallen, making me vulnerable, but I retained control of my footing. Once he approached to deliver a killing blow, I took him by surprise,”
Arndis read aloud.
“Leaping to my feet, my shield trapped his sword for but a moment, but a moment was all I needed. Unable to deflect, my sword took his neck. Upon his death, his soldiers quickly lost their appetite for fighting and fled. I was so exhausted when this happened, I did not realise at first what came after. Only as the chant rose did I hear my soldiers title me as Dragonheart, but it is a title I cherish. These men have endured great ordeals upon my orders, and their admiration is all the reward a commander could ever want.”
“What a battle!” came an outburst from Athelstan. “Does he write more?”
Arndis looked down at the letter in her hands, squinting her eyes in the weak candle light. “Merely pleasantries and well-wishes to me.”
Athelstan gave a sigh. “What I would not give to be in his boots. There is nothing as elating, as intoxicating as hard-won victory.”
“A feeling you have often known if rumour be true.”
“On occasion.” Athelstan exhaled and smiled. “Thank you, Lady Arndis, for this gift along with your company.”
“It was nothing,” she blushed; the red colour on her cheeks could barely be seen in the darkness.
“A jar of water seems like nothing except to a man in the desert.”
“You are as gifted with words as you are in war,” Arndis told him, almost in chiding fashion.
“We fight with swords upon the battlefield and words anywhere else,” Athelstan declared. “If I could wield only one weapon, I would choose words any day.”
“Words are the only weapon available to me,” Arndis considered. “That said, you are correct to some extent. I have seen words cause men to halt their swords, but there are also men who would happily use their swords to silence the words of others.”
“Agreed,” Athelstan nodded. “I have had plenty of time to reflect in here. Perhaps my contemplations would be different had my circumstances also been different, but it seems obvious now that placing might over right brings only disaster.” He raised his arms, making his chains rattle.
“I am sorry about your current – predicament,” Arndis said cautiously.
“As am I,” he replied with a bitter smile. “But who can I blame but myself? My brother, perhaps, yet in the end, I chose to follow him. I could have refused.”
There was hesitation before Arndis posed her question. “Why did you not refuse him?”
Athelstan sat silent for a while. “It was not that I believed him to be right. Rather, I believed the rest to be wrong.” He gave an awkward smile. “I suppose that makes little sense.”
“You may need to elaborate,” she admitted.
“I know my brother’s failings. I did not follow him because I imagined he would be the king we needed. I followed him because I despaired at all I had seen within the Order and the realms. In my arrogance, I believed this path gave me the possibility to mend it all.”
“What made you despair? If my question is not out of bounds,” Arndis hurried to add.
“I am so starved for conversation, you could ask me anything,” Athelstan confessed. “The Order’s campaign in Heohlond was gruesome. Your father was right to seek an end to it, and they killed him for it. Neither the lord marshal nor the knight marshal were men equal to the responsibility given them, and they both died ignoble deaths as a result.”
“Did you know my father well?”
Athelstan paused. “I knew him. At the battle of Cairn Donn, we fought together side by side, which forges kinship between men. He was a good man, Arngrim of House Arnling, and I was saddened by his death.”
“I do not have many memories of him,” Arndis confided in him. “I am not sure if I truly remember how he looks, or I simply remember the portrait of him hanging in our house.”
“I think you were in his thoughts. When I was recalled to Middanhal to be sent to Alcázar, he asked me to bring Brand as my squire, far away from Adalrik, and extend the protection of my house to you and your mother,” Athelstan explained kindly.
“I never knew.”
“In my absence, there was little I could do. I told my brother, but Isenhart was never the sort to care for such promises. Of course, now it is my house that could use the protection of yours,” Athelstan remarked with hollow laughter.
Arndis glanced out at the corridor. “I have been here a long time. I think it best I leave rather than risk discovery. I shall return another day if you wish it.”
“I do,” Athelstan exclaimed, staring at her with eyes starved for light. “I wish it fervently.”
“Until next time,” Arndis told him, and he bowed in farewell to her.
Although the dragonlord had an entire wing at his disposal, he stayed there alone. His family, meaning his wife and son, had chambers in the same part of the palace as the rest of the House of Vale. Konstantine spent most of his time in idle fashion; now that he was no longer the heir presumptive to the jarldom of Vale, his uncle had stopped pressuring him to learn what being a jarl entailed, and his father was too busy ruling the realm to make any demands. The only two people that Konstantine saw much of was his cousin, Valerie, and his mother, the lady Mathilde.
“Are you in here, my boy?”
“Yes, Mother,” he replied.
She found him lying on his bed, playing with grapes before eating them. “Eat properly,” she admonished him, and he sat up straight.
Mathilde sat down next to him on the bed, caressing his hair. “You seem restless, my son.”
“I am fine,” he told her with slightly confusion. “I was just lying down, doing nothing.”
“Is doing nothing really a fitting way for you to spend your time? You, the descendants of jarls, not to mention you have royal blood on your mother’s side.”
“I know, Mother, you told me,” Konstantine said in an indulgent tone. “Your great-grandfather was king of Ealond long, long ago.”
“Not so long ago,” she sniffed. “Regardless, my point is, do you not feel the urge to do something? Make something of yourself?”
“Uncle has a new heir,” he shrugged. “I will not be jarl or anything else.”
“Only if you accept your fate,” Mathilde claimed. “Your father was not born to a title either, and now he is dragonlord. Your prospects are even better, for you have me as your mother.”
Konstantine gave her an odd look. “There is really not much you can do, Mother. Things are the way they are.”
“Nonsense. I expect more from you, Konstantine, do you hear me? I expect you to make your mark on the world.”
“Very well, Mother.” The indulgent tone returned with full force in Konstantine’s voice.
“Do you hear me?” Mathilde’s voice, hitherto moving between caring and stern, turned harsh. “If opportunity presents itself, I expect you to seize it with both hands. Do not dare grow complacent, do you understand?”
“Yes, Mother, I understand,” Konstantine mumbled, seeming suddenly like a child.
“Good,” she smiled. “Get some sleep, dear child. It will keep you strong.” She bade him goodnight with a final caress.