85. Snake Pit
The kingthanes escorted Arndis to the royal chambers without delay once she appeared. In a flattering dress and with new jewellery, she turned as many heads as the day before. As soon as Hardmar saw her, he flashed a smile and turned to his brothers. “Leave.” Their eyes darted between him and Arndis. “Leave,” he repeated with anger rising in his voice. The youths quickly got up and made an awkward departure while bowing before the lady, who smiled and returned their courtesies with more grace.
“You have such an air of command, my prince,” Arndis flattered.
“They know who is master,” Hardmar replied with a casual tone of voice. “I had the servants tap a fine barrel of wine,” he continued, gesturing towards the table where a bottle of wine had been placed along with two cups. “Would you care for some now? I will have it served.”
“I should take a cup with delight, but allow me,” Arndis proposed, pouring herself. “The appearance of servants can feel so crude at times. I prefer the mood as it is now,” she added coyly. Having filled the two cups, one more than the other, she presented the drink to the prince.
“I will not deny being presented wine by such a delicate hand,” Hardmar remarked. “I have set up the game for us. Shall we?” He extended his hand in invitation towards the table where the chess set awaited them.
“With pleasure. I look forward to what I might learn today.”
Half an hour and half a bottle later, Hardmar declared victory, and Arndis appeared deeply impressed. “You leave me confounded with your ability to see openings everywhere,” she told him.
“The art lies in creating an opening where none exist,” Hardmar revealed with a superior smile. “But you already show progress. I almost thought at one point you might win this match.”
“You should not flatter such, my prince,” Arndis spoke with blushing cheeks, helped along by the mixture she had applied an hour earlier. “If I make progress, it is only because my teacher is so proficient.”
“Now who is flattering whom?” Hardmar asked with a grin, taking yet another sip from his cup.
“Truly, you have the signs of a commander. You would make a great captain, leading armies in the field.”
“That is true,” the prince considered. “That is what this game teaches, after all, how to direct troops.”
“It is an enjoyable game,” Arndis remarked. “A pleasant distraction from the troubles of the day.”
“If you are referring to your brother’s predicament, you have my sympathy, but that is all I can offer. It is a matter for the Adalthing, and we must trust it has the wisdom to decide these matters,” Hardmar told her with an overbearing voice.
“I trust in your wisdom,” Arndis confided in him, emphasising the last two words. “And so I shall trust the Adalthing.”
“I only fear what shall happen to me afterwards. I have no father, my prince, and a woman left without family is defenceless.” She bit her lip in an anguished expression.
“No woman of Sigvard’s blood will ever be defenceless at my court,” Hardmar declared with grandeur. “You have no reason to fear.”
“A stone falls from my heart,” Arndis declared, pressing a hand to where her heart resided. “I knew a prince of your stature would not let anything befall me. The line of Sigvard is safe in your hands. Prince Hardmar, defender of the dragonborn. If any deserve to be titled Dragonheart, it is surely you.”
Hardmar gave a satisfied smile. “If that is your judgement, I will not gainsay you.”
“Again you show your wisdom, my prince.”
“How come there are no defensive stone throwers on the walls of Middanhal?” Brand wondered. “Given that there is only a small area for the enemy to approach, a catapult on each tower would be devastating.”
“That was originally the intention,” Athelstan replied. He was arranging the straws upon the ground to resemble a city with fortifications and towers, and he had broken some into numerous pieces to create an army that was attacking the walls.
Athelstan nodded in the dark until he responded in speech instead. “If you ever examine one of the towers, you can see the markings in the ground where the machinery was meant to be anchored.”
“I had no idea,” Brand admitted. “I will be sure to take note of that next time I pass by.” They both laughed. “Why are there none now?”
“They were dismantled long before my time. My best guess would be that having siege engineers to maintain and operate them was deemed too costly in peace time,” Athelstan speculated.
“To be fair, catapults would not have saved the city from me or Sir Richard.”
They shared laughter once more.
Konstans was pacing around the room. Not his own, but the chamber belonging to his wife. “Please, dear husband, you will give me a headache if you do not sit down,” Mathilde declared.
“He is proving not only impossible to control, but impossible to work with,” Konstans complained, though he ceased walking around. “I could live with him being headstrong if his decisions were not so obviously foolish and self-destructive.”
“That is the nature of princes and kings,” Mathilde stated prosaically. She sat in the corner of the room, following her husband with her eyes.
“Any suggestion I make, he is bound to do the opposite. The only thing that seems certain is that he is determined to do what is against his own best interests,” Konstans continued, resuming his pacing.
“You exaggerate, I am sure. He is making a fool of himself, true, but that will only make the Adalthing less inclined to heed him and thus more inclined to heed you,” Mathilde claimed.
“It is more than that,” Konstans muttered in a dark tone of voice. “I see the signs of someone ill equipped to handle power. Before we know it, we have another King of Grief with all the persecution and terror to follow. Summary executions, snake pits as in the old times, and worse.”
“That is a dire prediction,” his wife said. “It cannot be so bad.”
“Not yet, but I refuse to stand by and witness the realm descend into such chaos again.” He stroked his chin. “I may have to make plans.”
“What of the younger brother? He seems eager to please. It was the Adalthing that made Hardmar heir. They can choose another,” Mathilde suggested.
“To my knowledge, the Adalthing has never set aside an heir once confirmed,” Konstans considered.
“These are not ordinary times. There is no king either to declare an heir for the Adalthing to confirm.”
“True, but if we were to have another election, we may open the path for King Adelard to make his claim known. Given the rebellion in the north, we do not need a conflict to erupt in the south.”
“You were satisfied with the work done by that mercenary, were you not? Jerome was his name?”
“I was.” Konstans looked at his wife thoughtfully.
“You may require his services again.”
The door opened to Brand’s cell. He squinted as the light flooded in, staring at the shape in the doorway.
“We finally meet again,” Hardmar greeted him. “How do you find your new accommodations?”
“After life in an army camp, I find them marvellous,” Brand replied. “Had I known I would experience such luxury, I would have gotten arrested long ago.”
Hardmar smiled sardonically. “Your spirits have not suffered, I see. You must be wondering why I am here.”
Ignoring him, Hardmar continued. “After your arrest, I did not plan to come down here.”
“Your plan failed.”
“I would see you in all your misery at the Adalthing, after all, so why make myself endure these dreadful surroundings?”
“That is harshly put.”
“Yet something has changed lately.”
“I find the surroundings grow on you.”
“I have had a visitor of my own.”
“I prefer the rats to what company you bring.”
Hardmar gazed directly at Brand. “Your sister.”
So far, the imprisoned man had been glancing idly in any direction but at the prince, but these words made him sit up straight and stare. “You lie.”
“You think I could not imagine a better lie if I wanted to injure you?” Hardmar smiled with one corner of his mouth. “Twice in as many days. At first, I thought she came to beg for your life, but she has barely mentioned you. She seems resigned to your fate.”
Brand relaxed his position a little. “What do I care?”
“Maybe you do, maybe you do not. Her only concern seems to be her own safety. So she has come to me, seeking my protection. I admit that I enjoy this turn of events.”
Brand scoffed. “Your attempts to wound me are as dull as your mind.”
“I must say, she has managed to catch my eye. I never really took notice of her before, but she can be quite beautiful, is that not so?”
Brand narrowed his eyes and his hands became fists. “Choose your words with caution.”
Hardmar laughed. “What threats can a condemned man in chains make?” Brand leapt to his feet, stretching his chains to the limit as he stood face to face with the prince. The latter recoiled but regained his composure when it became clear that Brand could not reach him. “So close, and yet so powerless,” he grinned.
“All you have, you stole from me,” Brand hissed through his teeth. “You drape yourself in my victories. The throne you sit upon, the crown your greedy fingers caress, you would have none of it but for me.”
“Yet I have it. All of it. And there is nothing you can change about it.”
“I cannot be the only one to see this. Your lack of worth will become apparent soon enough.”
Hardmar let contempt run across his face. “You think you are the only man who can win a battle? Once you are a head shorter, I will do what you have failed to do. I will gather the Order’s armies and march to Hæthiod myself, destroying the outlander scourge. Your name will be erased from the records, and I will stand as victor over the heathens.”
The prisoner stared at his visitor. “Know this,” Brand impressed upon him, straightening himself to his full height. “As you have gained your position by unworthy means, so you are unworthy to keep it. I may be condemned, but so are you.”
For a moment, Hardmar tensed with a variety of emotions dancing across his face. Finally, he laughed. “I came here thinking you might beg for your life, but this proved much better entertainment. Thank you, Sir Adalbrand.” The title was spoken with a sneer. “We shall meet again soon.”
The prince departed, and Brand returned to his humble seat. “I hope you are right,” Athelstan called out from his cell. “The prince is in a nest of vipers, and they must be poised to strike at him. But he seems so venomous himself, it is possible the vipers will be the ones to suffer in the end.”
“Hardling, Vale, I care little,” Brand claimed. “As long as someone suffers.”
Athelstan was quiet for a moment. “Brand, will you forgive me?”
“That I broke my oath. That I chose to follow my brother rather than my Order. That I did not stay with you at Lake Myr.”
It took a little while before he received a reply. “Does it matter?” Brand asked. “It will not change anything. It will not alter the course of our fate.”
“It changes something for me. Soon, I will be walking up the scaffold,” Athelstan declared darkly. “This will be one less burden that I drag with me.”
“If it matters to you,” Brand told him, “you have my forgiveness.”
“Thank you.” Athelstan let out a deep breath. “I hope to see you on the other side. In the Sapphire City.”
“That would disappoint me. I expect at least one of us to be bound for Hel,” Brand declared.
Laughter was heard from the other cell.