83. Playing Blind
Once he had surrendered, Brand walked with his head held high through the hallways of the Citadel. Despite the slow pace, the Hawks did not pull him along or push him forward, and Brand was not in chains or had his hands bound; it seemed more like a band of thanes protecting their lord than guards escorting a prisoner.
To reach the dungeons, they had to cross from the southern side to the northern part of the fortress, where the Order had control. If Brand considered making a run for it, he showed no sign, walking steadfast along the shortest path to the cells; his word and his honour bound him stronger than iron. He descended the stairs to reach the circular guardroom, only stopping once he had come that far.
The guards discussed briefly where to place him while placing iron rings around his wrists; their instructions were to place prisoners as separate as possible, and the cells already held noblemen and thanes of Isarn along with the landgrave of Elis. Finally, one of the Hawks gave a shrug, took the keys, and gestured for Brand to follow him.
Choosing one of the empty cells casually, the Hawk entered along with Brand. He attached the chains hanging by the wall to Brand’s wrists, pulling a few times to make sure they were secure and sturdy. “Enjoy your stay, milord,” the Hawk grinned and left, closing and locking the door after him.
Brand sank down onto the crude bench that served as bed and chair. A torch burning in the hallway outside cast a dim light through the barred window in his door. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to examine his chamber. It was quickly done; a blanket lay folded next to him, and straw had been spread onto the stone floor to mitigate its coldness. “Gods, hear me,” he mumbled with a despondent expression. “Help me, for my circumstances cannot get any worse.”
A voice reached him from the adjacent cell. “Is someone else there? Did the guards bring a new prisoner?” someone asked. “My sympathies for your situation, though I hope you are not adverse to conversation. The hours grow long in this place.” Frowning, Brand listened as the voice continued. “I am Athelstan of Isarn, friend, and who are you?”
Brand let his head sink into his hands.
Early next day, Brand received a visitor. The guard unlocked the door to let in Arndis, and she hastened forward to embrace her brother tightly. “I am well, I am well,” he repeated, stroking her hair. “You need not be worried.”
She pulled back. “Of course I am worried! You are the last person who should be in a place like this.”
“Yet I am. Guilt or innocence has little bearing upon it,” he told her.
“I tried to see Lord Konstans, but I could not get admitted.”
Brand shook his head. “He will not see you. He has no reason to hear any plea you make.”
“If he would at least tell me with what evidence they hold you –” Arndis began to say.
“What would that accomplish?”
“We must plead your case to the Adalthing!” she declared. “If we can dismantle any proof they may have, the Adalthing must declare you innocent.”
“I already told you, my guilt or lack of same does not matter,” her brother impressed upon her. “All of this has carefully been planned. I was lured to Middanhal ahead of time that the landfrid would not protect me. Now they have me in chains, and Lord Konstans is far too clever to stumble on this last step. The Adalthing is entirely under his and his brother’s control. I saw that last year,” he added bitterly.
“Maybe that control can be broken. Lord Theodoric is our friend and wields influence too,” Arndis suggested.
Brand sat down, exhaling deeply. “Jarl Ingmond blames me for the death of his family. There is nothing he wants more than to see my head separate from my shoulders. Between him and Jarl Vale, I would need nearly every other member of the Adalthing on my side to be acquitted.”
“Then I will get them on our side!” Arndis proclaimed fiercely. “I will plead, beg, threaten, bribe, extort, and do what else I must to see you freed!”
Brand looked up at his sister’s face. “I am in no position to stop you. But heed my counsel, sister. Sell our house, take all the coin we have, and depart for distant realms. Do not let my downfall pull you with me. Escape while you can.”
“I will not abandon you,” Arndis told him firmly. “I will return. Keep your spirits up, Brother.”
She caressed his head for a moment before departing; he watched her leave with a resigned smile.
Walking down the corridor, Arndis stopped briefly in front of Athelstan’s cell to look through the window. He glanced up, and as their eyes met, a smile was lit on his face before she continued on her way. Once she was gone, Athelstan called out, “You are fortunate to have a sister such as the lady Arndis.”
“Yes, I am certainly in fortune’s grasp,” Brand muttered, rattling his chains.
“Did you speak? I could not hear,” Athelstan shouted apologetically. Brand responded with a deep sigh.
Arndis went straight from the dungeons to the chambers occupied by the siblings of Theodstan. Theodwyn sent a glance at the dirty hemline on Arndis’ dress but did not remark upon it, instead gesturing for her visitor to take a seat. “You must be so distraught, dear child. Did you manage to sleep at all?”
“I am fine,” Arndis replied, remaining standing. “Eleanor was a gracious hostess.”
“Room could be found for you here,” Theodwyn offered. “My brother has filled the chambers with his thanes, but I am happy to throw some of them out.”
“That will not be necessary,” Arndis told her, quickly changing the subject. “I need your help and that of your brother’s.”
“Theodoric is elsewhere. I do not know when he might return, but let us speak until then.”
Arndis finally sat down and took a deep breath. “I need to know if the jarl can see my brother exonerated in the Adalthing.”
Theodwyn clasped her hands. “He will seek to influence the assembly in that direction, of course.”
“Good,” Arndis exhaled. “That is a start.”
“It may not be enough,” Theodwyn admitted. “If Jarl Ingmond follows Jarl Vale, they need only to convince six landgraves of your brother’s guilt.”
“He is not guilty of anything,” Arndis exclaimed.
“Of course not, but what matters in the Adalthing is whether the lord protector can make it seem so.”
“How?” Arndis asked confounded. “What possible reason could there be to suspect Brand of anything?”
“There are – rumours,” Theodwyn spoke with careful phrasing. “Jarl Vale will fan the flames of such, I imagine.”
“Rumours? Of what?”
Theodwyn hesitated. “That your brother sought alliances in order to lead a revolt. In fact, it is said that he sought to marry you to the king of Korndale to secure the king’s armies for his cause.”
“That is preposterous!” Arndis could barely sit still. “Brand defeated the rebels, why would he become one?”
“You and I know that,” Theodwyn explained, “but it is not common knowledge.”
Arndis was silent for a moment, calming herself. “So it is the landgraves that will determine his fate.”
Theodwyn regarded her friend with concern. “My dear, it is almost time for me to take my stroll. Will you not join me? It will do you good.”
“Thank you, I have no need of it,” Arndis replied absentmindedly.
At this point, the jarl entered, followed by two of his thanes. He stopped as he saw Arndis and nodded in greeting. “My lady,” he said courteously, removing his cloak and handing it to Holebert, who appeared upon his master’s arrival.
“My lord,” she greeted him back.
“Theodoric, it is good you have returned. Arndis needs our help to secure her brother’s release.”
“I see,” the jarl mumbled. “It may not be that easy.”
“Nobody expects it to be easy,” Theodwyn retorted. “You have swayed the Adalthing against worse odds.”
“That was a different time,” Theodoric countered. “It is not a matter of persuading the landgraves to support your brother, it is persuading them to oppose Vale. With his tight grip on power, few will be willing to do so.”
“You will try, will you not?” Arndis asked with concern.
“I shall see what I can do,” Theodoric promised her, though his words were spoken cautiously. “We already have a rebellion on our hands, and the noblemen are frightened. It is easy to make them see traitors everywhere.”
“My brother is not a traitor!” Arndis interjected, standing up.
“Do not worry,” Theodwyn spoke in a soothing voice. “Theodoric has no intentions of giving up. Have you, Brother?”
The jarl cleared his throat. “I shall see what can be done,” he reiterated faintly.
Arndis let her gaze measure him from head to toe. “You have my gratitude for that, my lord jarl,” she spoke politely. “If you will excuse me.” She gave a short bow and left with haste.
Theodwyn sent her brother a scathing look. “You could have at least attempted to reassure the poor girl.”
“And lie to her?” he retorted. “I was as kind as I could be.”
“You could have pledged your full support, that you would do your utmost to save her brother from the axe.”
“His fate is sealed,” Theodoric claimed. “I shall lend my voice to him in the Adalthing, but no more. If I negotiate with the landgraves on his behalf, suspicion will fall on me next!”
“I find your company difficult when you act cowardly,” Theodwyn declared coldly, leaving abruptly for her own room without another word.
Theodoric stared at the door she closed behind her. “I am keeping us both alive, you ungrateful woman,” he muttered through gritted teeth.
“You always do what you know is best,” another voice spoke. It was Holwyn, entering the parlour to place a hand on Theodoric’s shoulder. “We all know this.”
“That does not seem to be the case for my sister,” the jarl grumbled.
“I think you are right and that Sir Adalbrand is doomed. Unless unusual measures are taken into use,” she proffered.
Theodoric turned his eyes on her. “No. They are looking for any excuse to tighten the noose around anybody that might seem against them. Do not give Vale or his brother any reason to lead either of us to the scaffold as well.”
“As you say, milord,” Holwyn declared meekly; she inclined her head and retreated a few steps, hiding her expression.
“I heard the story of your victory at Polisals. It was most impressive,” Athelstan called out. When he received no reply, he continued. “It must have been exhilarating to be hailed as the Dragonheart with the rush of battle and victory coursing through your veins. I can only imagine your state of mind on that day.”
“You need not flatter me,” Brand retorted. “You have won your own share of battles. You know the taste of victory as well as any other.”
“I have,” Athelstan granted. “Yet none where I challenged the enemy captain to single combat and turned the tide of the battle by felling him. You would think such only happened in song.”
“I suppose,” Brand assented, sound mollified. “In fact, a skald in Hæthiod chose to travel in my company, and he witnessed the battle. He must have thought as you, for he put the deed into verse.”
“Hah!” Athelstan exclaimed. “I always knew they would sing your name one day. It happened sooner than I anticipated.”
“I guess,” Brand commented with a pleased voice.
“I wish I could have seen the sight,” Athelstan declared. “How you waded into battle and hacked your enemy’s head off.”
Brand gave a frown. “How do you know such details of the battle? I did not mention this in my dispatches.”
“Arndis told me.”
“My sister has been paying you visits in this godforsaken hole?” Brand’s voice quivered between disbelief and outrage.
“She has. She bribes the guards, I believe. Even her considerable charm could not grant her passage this often.”
“Often?” The word was bellowed by Brand. “What in Hel’s name would she come to visit you for?”
“An act of kindness, I would assume. She brings me news of the outside or plays chess against me. She is most skilled.”
“I know,” Brand said icily, “I taught her. If I had known she spent her time so frivolously, I would have returned to Middanhal months ago.” Athelstan gave no reply at first, but suddenly he roared with laughter. Brand pressed his lips together, but finally curiosity took hold and he yelled out, “What?”
“You must have earned a lot of silver from the spoils after your victory against me,” Athelstan began to explain.
“That very silver was used by your sister to bribe her way into visiting me. I could have accepted it as mere coincidence that you and I are now made neighbours in imprisonment, but the evidence is mounting. The gods have a sense of humour, and the jest is played upon us.”
“Then let that be your entertainment and let me have some peace,” Brand shouted, crossing his arms and ignoring further attempts at conversation.
Meanwhile, Arndis entered the wing occupied by Jarl Vale and his family. She did not get far before a pair of Hawks stopped her. “What is your business?”
“I seek an audience with the lord protector,” she answered.
They both grinned. “You thought you would simply walk in and speak with the ruler of the realm?”
“How could that fail to work?” the other soldier laughed.
Arndis placed her hand on her coin purse. “I understand there may be a certain toll in order to pass.”
The Hawks eyed her and exchanged glances. “Do you hear what I hear?”
“I hear someone thinking we’re willing to risk our employment for a few meagre coins.”
Arndis bit her lower lip. “I would make it worth –”
“As if our employer wouldn’t notice we let someone walk right past us and into his chamber, or worse, into the room where his newborn son sleeps.”
“There would be a flogging in our future. But who wouldn’t happily take a whipping for a handful of silver?”
While the soldiers laughed at her expense, Arndis saw someone moving down the corridor. “Lady Valerie!” she called out, making the shape turn around. “Lady Valerie, may I speak with you?”
The woman hesitated but eventually walked down the hallway to approach the group. At her presence, the Hawks ceased their merrymaking and stood up straight with blank expressions. “Do I know you?” Valerie asked.
“I am Arndis of House Arnling,” she introduced herself.
Valerie inclined her head in greeting. “What do you require of me?” she asked, a little confused.
“I should dearly wish to speak with your father, Jarl Vale,” she added politely,” if such a thing is possible.”
“My father rarely receives visitors. You should speak with my uncle, Lord Konstans, instead,” Valerie suggested.
“I have tried, but he seems too busy to receive me,” Arndis explained. “Your father is my remaining hope.”
“I cannot help you in that case,” Valerie told her and turned to leave.
“Wait! My brother is the only family I have,” Arndis pleaded. “I ask humbly that you would intercede with the jarl on my behalf.”
“In this case, my father does not listen to me,” Valerie replied with a hint of regret. “You have my sympathy, Lady Arndis, but do not expect that of my father’s.”
“What of the prince? Are you not engaged to him?”
Valerie gave a frown. “Our engagement has not been made official. I do not see the relevance, regardless. It is not Prince Hardmar who has had your brother arrested.”
“Yet the lord protector must heed him, I imagine,” Arndis claimed. “Prince Hardmar’s opinion must weigh heavily.”
“Perhaps,” Valerie admitted doubtfully, “but I am sure his opinion is aligned with my father’s. I have even less sway with the prince, in any case. I have not met him even once save from afar, and I doubt he holds any affection for me.”
An expression of dejection fluttered across Arndis’ face before she composed herself. “I see. I thank you for your attention, Lady Valerie.” She gave a short bow and departed. The guards waited until Valerie had gone as well before resuming their laughter.
Athelstan moved about, restless in his cell. With the chains restricting him, his options were limited; mostly, he shifted between sitting on his bench and lying down upon it, moving the blanket about, or arranging the dispersion of straw upon the floor. Eventually he called out to his neighbour. “Fourth pawn two steps forward.” He received no answer. After waiting a while, he repeated himself. “I move my fourth pawn two paces forward.”
He had to be patient before he finally got a reply. “Second pawn one step forward.”
Athelstan gave a smile. “Thane on black, three steps forward.”
“You tried that before. Last summer we spent in Alcázar. Knight on black, two steps forward and inland.”
“I thought you might have forgotten,” Athelstan laughed. “You cannot blame me for trying.”
“I suppose not.” Brand cleared his throat. “Your move.”
With evening on its way, Arndis approached the royal wing. Instead of Hawks, she was met by kingthanes, who glanced at the blue colours of her clothing. “Lady Arndis,” they greeted her respectfully. “What brings you here?”
“I desire an audience with Prince Hardmar,” she informed them.
“It is late, but we can enquire whether the prince is available to receive visitors,” one of them offered.
“I was not thinking tonight,” Arndis corrected them. “If you would be so kind as to tell the prince that I hope to return tomorrow afternoon with his approval. He will have my utmost gratitude should he be amenable to entertain me, even but a short while.”
One of the kingthanes nodded. “Of course, Lady Arndis. I will tell the prince immediately.” He turned and disappeared deeper into the wing. Shortly after, he returned. “The prince has agreed to your request and expects you tomorrow afternoon.”
Arndis gave a slight bow. “You have my gratitude, my lords. Until tomorrow.”