87. Who We Are
Who We Are
As the day of the Adalthing arrived, unease could be felt in the air. The Adalthing was meant to convene the day after summer solstice, and meeting so early in spring felt eerie to many. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Adalthing had also met out of time last year, and repeating this felt like an ill omen to many of its members. Most of these noblemen preferred to be left in peace without the Crown interfering in how they governed and taxed their estates; gathering the Adalthing to meddle in the Crown’s affairs invited the latter to meddle in theirs. Furthermore, with the grim topic of traitors and executions looming, the stage was set for a bleak assembly.
There was none of the merriment and idle talk between the different noblemen and their families, who would usually only meet for this occasion at solstice. As noon approached, the lords gathered in the hall of the Adalthing. With the absence of Jarl Isarn, his margraves, and four of the northern landgraves, the chamber seemed large and almost empty. Jarl Theodstan and his followers congregated in the northern part, appearing very few in number. Jarl Ingmond arrived with his vassals as did Jarl Vale, and the southern landgraves moved back and forth between their groups or occasionally formed their own. Other than the absence of the rebellious lords, a key difference from last year’s assembly was that the throne was once more occupied. Although he was not king and had no formal role in the Adalthing yet, Hardmar had taken the seat with a satisfied expression, and none had seen cause to argue against it.
The balconies were full of spectators. The high priest of the blackrobes in Middanhal with his silver-threaded clothing was present, as was Edwin, alderman of the guilds. Sir William had found a location and stood surrounded by several women such as Arndis and Theodwyn, friends of his former ward Eleanor, who was also by his side; Geberic and Glaukos stood nearby. Arion, chamberlain to the jarl of Vale, was another in the audience, and eventually the guards had to turn people away from walking up the stairs.
As the noon bell resonated through the castle, Quill called the assembly to order. First, the ritual had to be overseen. Each present member of the Adalthing was consecrated by the priestess of Disfara and swore the oath to uphold the Adalthing, its laws, and its decisions. With the gathering sanctified, the trials could begin.
The first brought to the room was Elis, landgrave and former dragonlord. His imprisonment had lasted many months now, and he bore the signs. His clothing was ragged and filthy, and the lords standing near the entrance shied away from the stench as he was dragged in by two Hawks. His hair was long and unkempt, his nails ragged and torn. He raised his hands to shield his eyes against the daylight and stood a pitiful sight with chains around his wrists, which had left the skin raw and red.
As dragonlord, Konstans stated the allegation against him. He conspired with the rebels to surrender the Citadel to them; thus, the charge was treason by aiding a rebellion against the Crown. Witness to this was Isabel of Hæthiod; although absent, her testimony had been heard by Theobald, captain of the Citadel, who repeated it before the Adalthing. Elis had revealed his plans to betray the defenders and ensure the castle fell into the hands of the Isarn army, and Isabel had subsequently informed the captain. Soon after, the rebels had carried out a nightly assault, though it was foiled as Elis’ treachery had been unmasked beforehand.
The charge and evidence presented, Quill turned towards Elis. “You may speak in your own defence now, my lord, or if you admit your guilt, you may call for the Adalthing to show mercy.”
Elis licked his lips. “I am innocent,” he claimed. “The only evidence against me is that of a woman, who is not even present. Why would I, a landgrave of the south, seek to aid these murderous northerners?” He glanced around the hall at the other noblemen from the south, avoiding Theodoric and his men. “I am the victim of a plot to see me fall.”
“It is working,” someone remarked with harsh laughter.
“Silence,” Quill commanded. “The prisoner alone may speak.”
“I see that my enemies are numerous and have infiltrated even this place,” Elis continued, straightening up as much as he could. “I will find no justice here. I demand my guilt is determined through trial by combat instead.”
The noblemen exchanged glances. “Unfortunately, my lord, trial by combat is only permitted in disputes of honour and when evidence is absent. You stand accused of treason, and evidence has been brought against you. For either of these reasons, your request cannot be granted,” Quill explained, making many of the lords grin at Elis’ despondent appearance.
“I am innocent,” Elis reiterated, though his voice was growing faint. “I do not deserve this.”
“Enough,” Konstans declared.
“I do not deserve,” Elis continued, stammering to himself.
“Let us have the voices counted,” the dragonlord commanded, to which Quill nodded. He began the ritual questioning, asking each member to state whether he considered the accused to be guilty or innocent in the charge brought against him. All declared him to be guilty.
“George, landgrave of Elis, the Adalthing has spoken with one voice. You are found guilty of treason, which may be punished by geld, exile, or death. Furthermore, the right of your house to inherit your title is no longer guaranteed,” Quill proclaimed.
“Execution!” Hardmar announced loudly, making everyone turn towards him. “The only reward for treason is death.”
Konstans cleared his throat. “The doom placed upon him shall be execution by the axe. Remove the prisoner.”
“Innocent,” Elis croaked as the Hawks dragged him out.
Shortly after, three men were brought to the hall. One pushed against the guards, one walked with bowed head, and one moved with dignity. “Isenwald of Isarn, Athelstan of Isarn, Eumund of Isarn, you stand accused of high treason. You broke the king’s peace with the aim to seize the throne for your lord. You led armies against the Order of Adal in open rebellion. You assaulted the garrison of Middanhal through deceit in order to further this aim. Furthermore, Sir Athelstan and Sir Eumund, you broke your oath as knights and the loyalty you owed the king, or in his absence, the lord protector at the time,” Konstans declared.
“As you have surrendered after battle as part of rebellious forces, no further evidence has been considered necessary,” Quill explained. “Yet you may all speak in plea of mercy, asking the Adalthing to absolve you of your crimes.”
As the first accused, Isenwald spoke first. “I have nothing to say,” he declared.
“Thank the gods, or we would be here all year,” someone jested, evoking grim laughter.
Eumund glanced around the room. “Give me a sword, and I would gut each of you like the fat pigs you are,” he proclaimed with an acerbic voice. “I would rather have death than mercy from any of you.” He caused a murmur; many met his contempt with their own disdain, while others expressed some measure of respect.
Athelstan spoke as the last, but before any words left his tongue, he let his eyes move slowly among the collection of lords. “I am resigned to my fate. I make no apologies nor excuses for my actions. I once did more for this realm than any man standing in this hall, and I received only exile in Alcázar as reward. I did more than any man here to hurt this realm, and now I shall receive death. Hero or villain, our fate in this life remains the same.” He glanced up at the balcony and let his gaze rest upon Arndis. “I bid you all farewell, knowing you shall never see the like of me again.”
“Enough,” yelled Hardmar. “Let us get on with it.”
“Let us count,” Konstans demanded, and each lord proceeded to state for each prisoner whether they favoured him to be punished for his guilt or not. As with Elis, there was never any doubt about the outcome.
“Isenwald of Isarn, Athelstan of Isarn, Eumund of Isarn, the Adalthing has spoken with one voice. You are found guilty of high treason, which may be punished by exile or death. Furthermore, Athelstan of Isarn and Eumund of Isarn have forfeited their rank as knights. You shall each be pronounced a knave and have your sword broken.”
“They will be dead long before that,” Hardmar laughed. A few noblemen joined his laughter anxiously.
“All the prisoners are condemned to execution by the axe,” Konstans announced. “Return them to the dungeons.”
When the last prisoner was brought to the chamber of the Adalthing, murmur rose from the floor and on the balconies. The previous trials had been matters of formality; this was the one that would be discussed for years to come. Walking tall, Brand entered the hall flanked by guards. His incarceration had not had time to leave as great a mark upon him as the other prisoners; although his clothes were dirty and torn in places, he seemed unbroken in spirit and body. His strong blue eyes moved from one lord to the next, causing some to shrink. Others gave a curt nod in greeting and acknowledgement, which Brand returned. A few had entirely different reactions; Ingmond stared with unbridled hate at the chained knight.
Quill called for silence, and once it had been obtained, Konstans could pronounce the charges. “Sir Adalbrand, you stand accused of high treason and related crimes. They are as follows,” the dragonlord proclaimed. “You sought an alliance with the king of Korndale in order to lead his armies against Middanhal, either to put him or yourself upon the throne.” Mutterings erupted among the audience.
“Silence,” Quill demanded.
“You gathered men to your personal guard as thanes, despite not having that privilege,” Konstans continued. “Lastly, you violated the Knight’s Codex and its command to act in a righteous manner against your enemies by poisoning them in order to conquer the city of Tothmor.”
There was a clamour of voices upon hearing the final charge. “Silence,” Quill repeated, “there must be order in the chamber. Proceed, my lord,” he told Konstans.
“In my hand, I hold a letter from my reeve in Plenmont,” Konstans told the assembly, holding it high. “It proves the first accusation as it recounts how the king of Korndale is seeking to strengthen his claim upon the throne of Adalrik through marriage to Sir Adalbrand’s sister, Lady Arndis.” A number of eyes turned towards the woman, who looked as perplexed as any. “It further explains the source of this intelligence, proving it to be trustworthy.” At the last word, Brand smiled.
“We will pause these proceedings later to allow any to investigate the letter,” Quill declared. “Continue, my lord.”
“The second charge requires little explanation. When I came to arrest Sir Adalbrand, his men fought without fear of death to defend him rather than stand aside. Neither of them are Order soldiers. One is in fact a former thane of the jarl of Theodstan, and the other a former Blade of the queen of Hæthiod. Both have shifted allegiance towards Sir Adalbrand, defending him in the manner of thanes. Even if we set aside the perversion of these thanes abandoning their former masters, Sir Adalbrand has usurped the privilege of the high nobility to name thanes. This is a direct threat against the Adalthing,” Konstans claimed. Brand scoffed in response.
“On with it,” Hardmar demanded. “Tell us about the poison!”
Konstans gave a grim smile. “In order to weaken the defenders of Tothmor, Sir Adalbrand had the water supply poisoned. I have demanded of Sir William that he stands witness, but he has refused.” This caused another wave of conversation to flood over the hall with many staring at the famous knight. For his part, William showed no emotion. “I have letter again explaining the events and Sir Adalbrand’s dishonourable actions,” Konstans elaborated, pulling out another piece of paper from his clothing. “It reveals the details of the assault upon Tothmor, explains how the garrison was too weak to fight back, and how the contaminated water had to be disposed of. The honourable Sir Vilmund has signed the letter as witness of its veracity in describing these events.” Bitter laughter ensued from Brand.
“We shall halt this trial for an hour,” Quill announced with an eye towards the water clock that stood near the throne, “to allow any that so desires to read the contents of the letters.”
While Brand was allowed to read the missives as the first, the remaining people present gathered into small groups and hushed conversations. As the exception, Hardmar sat alone. His eyes swept over the assembly, noting how the noblemen were dispersed or with whom they gathered, or he gazed up at the balcony.
Arndis stared at her brother. “Would your testimony have changed anything?” she asked William while looking ahead.
“Nothing I could say under holy oath would have helped Brand,” the knight admitted quietly.
Frustration danced across Arndis’ face before she composed herself. “I understand,” she spoke tonelessly.
Eleanor gave a shiver and placed her arm inside William’s. “This is all so dreadful.” Next to them, Theodwyn stood silent.
Her brother was on the floor of the hall, surrounded by his margraves. Remarks were being exchanged along with worried looks, and they seemed most of all a group under siege.
The southern lords were livelier, many of them engaged in discussions. More than one expressed satisfaction that the first of the rebels would soon face justice, and it was only a matter of time before Jarl Isarn himself followed his sons and brother to the scaffold. Some questioned Brand’s guilt; Jarl Ingmond brooked no disagreement in that respect and added that the axe was far too good and swift a fate.
Jarl Vale, lord protector of the realm, was remarkably silent. The proceedings of the Adalthing were generally led by the King’s Quill and the dragonlord, and he had not interfered with this arrangement. While his vassals were conversing loudly around him, the jarl himself mostly stared at the water clock.
His brother made up for this, being in high spirits. Both margraves and landgraves commended him for unmasking this treachery before it could come to fruition, and the dragonlord received their praise with smiles and grace, even making jests.
Quill had left the hall. He appeared again on the balcony, carrying on a quiet conversation with the high priest of the blackrobes. They made sure none could overhear the words exchanged; the only thing discernible was that the blackrobe shook his head slightly before the conversation ended.
As the hour drew to its close, Quill returned to the hall and resumed the proceedings. Brand was given the floor to defend himself, now that he had seen the proof against him. “My lords,” he began. “You have heard the accusations against me, and you have seen the evidence against me. Yet Lord Konstans has been far too kind. He is too humble a man, I assume, or perhaps he feared to tire this assembly by going into lengthy details. Allow me to purge my soul and confess all the reasons I stand in chains on this day.”
“My first crime was to be born Adalbrand of House Arnling, atheling of Arn, atheling of Sigvard. My ancestry, proclaimed in my very name, gives these mighty lords cause to fear.” He let his gaze move from Konstans to Hardmar before it swept over the rest of the assembly. Some seemed to listen; others met Brand’s attempt to defend himself with little regard. “My next crime was leading an army across the Weolcans together with Sir Richard of Alwood and Jarl Theodoric of Theodstan.” As he mentioned the latter name, Brand motioned towards its wearer. Theodoric did not seem pleased or proud.
“After that, in the company of the same lords, I had the audacity to liberate Middanhal from Isenwald of Isarn. I continued by defeating Isenhart of Isarn upon the battlefield, and having not learned from my past mistakes, I finished my spree of transgressions by defeating Athelstan and Eumund of Isarn. In fact, each of the men whom you just condemned for high treason was only in chains because of me.”
“And we did nothing?” one of Vale’s margraves jeered, which several of his brethren agreed with.
Ignoring the outburst, Brand continued. “Given two thousand men and the company of the esteemed Sir William,” he spoke with a glance towards the knight on the balcony, who nodded in return, “I marched to Hæthiod to face an enemy ten times stronger. I conquered Tothmor, I conquered Polisals, I drove the outlanders from the realm. I did all of these things because I am a knight of Adal, and that is my charge, the only charge here today that matters. I defend the Alliance of Adalmearc against all enemies, whether they be invaders or rebels.”
“If letters may prove a villain, I am sure Lord Konstans could have the entire realm vilified within days,” Brand remarked. “No witnesses whose character and veracity may be assessed stand here today to prove these allegations against me. Allow me to fill that gap and bear witness myself.” He cleared his throat. “Any rank or position I have ever held has been given to me. Knight, lieutenant, captain, all have been earned. I have never sought to usurp the rightful position of another nor privileges I do not deserve. I have made no deals with foreign kings, only demanded their defence of the Seven Realms. I have gathered no men to me pledged in oaths, only in loyalty and willing service. I have slain no enemy who surrendered or were too wounded to resist, only those who struck first against these realms.”
Brand raised his hands before him, showing the chains upon them. “I am feared because of who I am, not because of what I have done. Consider this. You are all men of power,” he impressed upon them, “power greater than mine. One day you might find yourself standing where I stand. Would you wish to be convicted based on who you are or what you have done?” He let his eyes move across the room one last time. “I only ask that you judge me as you would wish to be judged.” He fell silent.
“Finally,” Hardmar sneered. “Let us get this over with.”
Brand left the centre of the hall with the statue of Disfara, clearing the space for the lords to approach and pronounce their judgement. Ingmond went first along with his margraves. He declared Brand to be guilty of high treason and all other charges, and none of his men went against him. The first twelve voices to send Brand to the scaffold. It required thirty-five.
Vale stepped forward as the next. He was glancing around the room, and his hand fumbled a bit as it tried to grab the foot of the statue. As Quill called for his vote, the jarl did not reply at first. His face was worried as he looked at Brand and the assembled noblemen. Whispers began to appear as Valerian delayed, and Quill called upon him again. “Guilty,” the jarl finally declared, returning to his brother and margraves. None of the latter went against their jarl. Twenty-nine voices against Brand.
The last jarl to voice his support was Theodstan, who mirrored his predecessor at the statue. Exhaling deeply, Theodoric swallowed and at last called out his choice. “Innocent of all charges.” As he turned around to walk back, his eyes crossed Konstans and afterwards Hardmar, making the jarl hurry back to his men. Had he declared as the others, the decision would have been made. Instead, people in the hall were calculating furiously. Six more members of the Adalthing had to lend their voice to a guilty verdict.
Only the landgraves remained now; upon his ascension as heir to the realms, Hardmar had lost his membership as an atheling, and Brand would not be participating either, though it seemed doubtful he would have voted for his own guilt in any case. Absent those northern landgraves who were in revolt, eleven in all had come to the assembly; nine of these were from the south. One by one, the remaining noblemen were called forward to make their voice heard.
Marcaster declared the prisoner guilty and sent Hardmar a nod, which the prince graciously reciprocated. The next two followed suit. The fourth hesitated briefly before announcing that he found the accused innocent. As he returned to the edge of the hall, the other southerners shied away from him. The fifth landgrave followed his peers and proclaimed his verdict to be guilty, as did the sixth, reaching a tally of thirty-four, one shy of a majority. With a heavy expression, Brand looked up at his sister. Arndis attempted to smile, but failed.
The seventh landgrave stepped forward and called out his judgement. When the word resonated around the hall, Brand staggered as if the doom pronounced upon him had physically fallen onto his shoulders. It did not matter what the remaining noblemen decided; Brand was found guilty of high treason.
Once the counting finished, Quill began to speak, but he stuttered so, he had to try again several times. “Adalbrand of House Arnling,” he finally spoke with quaking voice, “the Adalthing has spoken with one voice. You are found guilty of high treason, which may be punished by exile or death. Beyond that, you have forfeited your rank as knight. You shall be pronounced a knave and have your sword broken.”
Hardmar leaned back on his throne, satisfaction overflowing in his smile. Konstans stepped forward. “Your sentence is execution by the axe. Remove the prisoner.” On the balcony, there was sudden commotion; Arndis had collapsed and would have fallen if not for the quick intervention by William. As the Hawks dragged him away, Brand stared across the hall to gaze at his sister; both the faces of the Arnling siblings were drained of blood.
Once the condemned had been taken away, Hardmar made a motion to Konstans, who gave a quick nod. “The prince wishes to address the assembly,” he informed the noblemen.
“My lords, they are grim matters that summoned us here today, but justice has been served, and we may all find solace in that thought. We will not delay, but see justice carried out. The executions will begin tomorrow, spread over several days, to set a lasting example of what happens to those rebelling against the Crown,” Hardmar declared. Hearing this, Arndis retreated from the balcony with hasty steps, leaving the chamber. “The prisoners shall be executed in ascending order proportional to their crime. Elis tomorrow, Arnling the day after, and one man from Isarn each of the following days,” the prince decided.
“As you say, my prince,” Konstans acquiesced.
“Furthermore,” the prince continued, “not all is ill. I have an announcement to make in this assembly, declaring the intentions of mine and another house.” He paused, making sure all eyes were upon him. “I am proud to announce the engagement between my sister, Lady Gunhild of House Hardling, to Lord Edward of Marcaster.” Cheers rose among many of those listening; Valerian and Konstans remained silent, and neither looked pleased. “While it is traditionally the head of the bridegroom’s household who has the honour of making such an announcement, I thank Lord Marcaster for allowing me the joy of informing you all of the bond between our houses, soon to be made formal through my sister and his son.”
Marcaster took a small step towards Hardmar, separating himself from the crowd of his peers, and made a small bow. “The honour remains mine to see my son wed to such an illustrious house as yours, and the joy felt by my prince is shared by me and all those of my house.”
Congratulatory and celebratory cries were heard around the hall; Valerian on the other hand drew close to his brother. “What is happening?” he whispered. “What of Valerie?”
“We are being usurped,” Konstans muttered darkly, staring at Marcaster. “Hardmar wants the landgraves on his side to move against us, and Marcaster wants to replace us.” He turned towards Quill and spoke again, raising his voice. “Our business is concluded. You may end the assembly.”
The law keeper had been standing dazed, but the dragonlord’s words pulled him out of it. “The voice of the Adalthing has spoken and may now lie silent. Under the eyes of the dragon, the raven, the bull, the horse, the bear, the hart, and the eagle, I declare its word to be law.” The Adalthing was over.
Valerian turned to his brother again, speaking with a hushed tone of voice. “What happened? I thought the prince had agreed to marrying Valerie?”
“I am as surprised as you, Brother,” Konstans confessed. “He was supposed to announce the engagement.”
“What will we do now?”
“Do nothing,” Konstans told him. “I will handle this.”
“What will you do?”
The dragonlord let out a deep breath. “Tell the workmen to raise the scaffold. We will need it from tomorrow on.”