88. When the Raven Calls
When the Raven Calls
As usual, Konstans sat in his study the following morning shortly after sunrise. Unusually, he was not occupied with anything. He was not receiving visitors, reading missives, or writing his own; the small hourglass on his desk stood still. By the wall was a larger water clock, and the dragonlord continued to glance towards it while drumming his fingers on his desk.
He was at last disturbed by his servant. “That Red Hawk is here to see you,” Eolf informed him.
“Send him in.”
Jerome marched inside the room and waited until Eolf had left. “Apologies, milord,” he spoke.
“You had no luck?”
“No matter of luck would help,” the Hawk claimed. “I considered every angle. Approaching from the library tower, lowering myself onto the roof and go through a window, sneaking through somehow. Nothing worked. Those thanes got every inch covered. I couldn’t even get near.”
Konstans muttered a curse. “I must devise a way.”
“I can’t see how anything can be done inside the Citadel.”
“Not inside the Citadel,” the nobleman mumbled to himself. Ignoring Jerome, he sat silent for a while.
“Milord?” the mercenary cautiously asked after some time.
“I have a plan,” he finally said. “I have a long and arduous task for you, but your payment shall be equal in measure.”
“I’m at your service.”
“Eolf,” Konstans called out, summoning his servant. “Send a message to Prince Gerhard. Inform him that I request his presence immediately.” Eolf bowed in response and swiftly left. Outside on the Temple square, several workmen were busy assembling a scaffold.
Holwyn slipped into the parlour outside Arndis’ chamber, prompting Glaukos to leap to his feet. He had his sword halfway drawn before he relaxed. “You should announce yourself,” he chastised her.
“Just keeping you on your toes,” she smiled. “Is the lady here?”
“I am,” Arndis told her, appearing in the doorway of her room. “Let us talk in here,” she suggested, motioning for Holwyn to follow her. “What can you tell me?” she asked as soon as the door was shut.
“I have set it all in motion,” Holwyn confided in her. “Thanks to Lady Valerie, a carriage with the insignia of Vale will be ready to transport your brother to safety.”
“Because a carriage belonging to Vale will not be questioned at the gate,” Arndis realised.
“Can Lady Valerie be trusted?” Arndis questioned.
“She has as much at stake as you do,” Holwyn claimed.
“What happens next?”
“Leave the rest to me. With your silver and some ham-fisted persuasion, I will see your brother free.”
Arndis let out a sigh of relief. “When?”
“Today. The Hawks will be busy keeping order at the Temple square, and most of the Citadel’s inhabitants will be present to see Lord Elis lose his head.”
Arndis gave a shudder. “As long as it is not Brand. Thank you,” she spoke with emphasis, grabbing hold of Holwyn’s hands. “I owe you a debt that can never be repaid.”
“Thank me when it is over,” Holwyn smiled. “I suggest you stay in your room until then. Do not give anything away.”
“I will not move one foot,” Arndis promised.
Berimund moved through the royal quarters, nodding at his men as he passed them. The captain of the kingthanes continued until the innermost room, which served as Hardmar’s bedchamber. The prince was being attended to by servants dressing him. Berimund stepped inside and stood waiting.
“Captain,” Hardmar addressed him. The prince was looking into his mirror, admiring his appearance, and also using it to glance at the big man standing by the door.
“You summoned me, my prince,” Berimund replied politely.
“I did. Two of my kingthanes need to be dismissed from service immediately,” Hardmar told him, returning his attention to his attire. “I am tempted to command them incarcerated, but I have decided to be lenient.”
“Dismissed?” Berimund repeated. “Are you referring to Alaric and Sandar?”
“I am not aware of their names,” the prince retorted with derision. “They were my protectors the other day when I went to the library, where they defied me and refused to follow orders.”
“That would be them,” Berimund confirmed. “They told me of the incident shortly afterwards.”
“Well? Have they been thrown out in dishonour as they deserve? Stop fiddling, fool, and be done with it!” The last sentence was directed at a servant buckling the prince’s belt.
“My prince,” the captain explained in patient voice, “as neither of them have been derelict in their duties, brought shame to themselves, or in any way dishonoured their oath as thanes, I see no cause for that.”
Anger took hold of the prince’s expression, and the servants almost recoiled. He turned around to face the captain, having to bend his neck backwards to stare up at him. “I gave them an explicit command, and they refused to follow! How in Hel’s name is that not a violation of their oath?”
“Assaulting the King’s Quill when he poses no threat would be a crime,” Berimund spoke with composure. “To attack him is to attack the Adalthing, which may not be done.”
“He is a threat! He is a traitor like the rest of you!” Hardmar grabbed a cup standing on a nearby drawer and threw it against the wall.
“If that is your belief, my prince, you may dismiss him and all of us from service once you become king.” Berimund bowed his head in subservience.
Hardmar stared at the big thane, breathing heavily. “I will not forget this,” he swore with a malicious look. “Out of my way,” he snapped a moment later. “I have an execution to attend.” The captain stepped aside, making a full bow as the prince marched past him.
From the dungeons, two Hawks dragged Elis up the stairs and outside, reaching the southern courtyard. Already, a crowd was lining up to see the last march of the condemned. As they passed the gate, the number of spectators increased tenfold. A path was kept clear along the Arnsweg by hundreds of Hawks, keeping the people at bay and providing a suppressing effect to the riotous mood that so easily could grip a crowd.
Elis looked as pitiful as ever; to his filthy and ragged appearance, he added a sense of despair and despondence so strong, it surrounded him like a stench. He moved with lethargic steps, and the Hawks escorting him grumbled impatiently. They had been instructed not to hurry, allowing all plenty of time to witness the traitor’s slow march towards death.
The Citadel was nearly emptied for inhabitants courtside, giving it an eerie atmosphere of being abandoned; for something as important as the execution of a traitor, even servants were given leave of their duties to watch the law of the realm being upheld. Light-footed, Holwyn moved through the hallways with nary a sound; with nearly every Hawk on the streets to maintain order, she walked unseen across the fortress.
Yet as she neared the dungeons, she was spotted. “Hullo, Holwyn,” a voice called out to her.
Holwyn froze in her tracks. She was disguised as man, wearing pants and with her long hair tucked underneath a cap. She had just passed the doors to the various barracks occupied by the Hawks; ahead of her was the door that led to the cells. With a resigned look towards the entrance ahead, she turned around. “Hullo, Brother.”
Holebert looked at her with a regretful smile. “The jarl says to return to our chambers and stay there until his return.”
“How did he know?”
“You had me recruit one of Lady Valerie’s servants to be our spy.”
“The one who was enamoured by you because of the whole debacle with Isarn,” Holwyn mentioned. “She ratted me out?”
“Funny, isn’t it? She overheard your conversation and told me without realising your identity. I told the jarl, who figured out your scheme.”
Holwyn glanced towards the door to the lower levels. “You could say you came too late. Or that I knocked you out.”
Holebert shook his head. “Unlike you, I know my place. Our family has always served the jarls of Theodstan. I will not endanger that.”
“This is the only chance I will get!” she implored him. “It will be too late soon.”
“Why do you care?” Holebert asked with a scrutinising gaze at his sister. “This Adalbrand is nothing to us.”
“He saved us all,” Holwyn argued. “Theodoric risked everything to warn the Order against Isarn’s treachery, and it would have been for naught if not for Adalbrand. It is not right to do nothing and let him become meat for the worms.”
“Doing nothing may not be right, but it’s smart. There’s a hunt going on for traitors, and this can’t be concealed,” Holebert warned her. “They will scour this place for the culprit, and someone will talk. If not Lady Valerie or Lady Arndis, then the stable hand who prepared the carriage, or the guards at the gate who let it through, or some servant who noticed something. They will piece it together, our jarl will be next on the executioner’s block, and you will hang.”
“You may be right,” Holwyn admitted, hanging her head in defeat. One hand moved towards her pocket where her sap lay.
“Don’t even try,” Holebert told her. He gestured with his head towards the upper levels. “Move. You first.”
With a bitter look, Holwyn walked past her brother towards their chambers. “We’ll have innocent blood on our hands,” she said spitefully.
“At least our hands will still be attached to our wrists,” he retorted, escorting her back to their quarters.
With spring arriving, the vendors had been returning to the Temple square, transforming it to a marketplace once more and bringing trade with them. Much to the chagrin of the guilds, all of this had been temporarily halted, not only to make way for the scaffold raised in the centre of the square, but also to allow a throng of people to watch. Just south of where the executioner was to ply his trade, a tribune had been raised to allow the prince the perfect view of the square, with the Temple serving as the background to the gruesome spectacle about to unfold.
Hardmar sat on a high chair in the middle of the tribune with the lord protector to his right and the dragonlord to his left. Seated on benches extending on either side were the noblemen of the Adalthing, many of them accompanied by their wives and children. The absence of most of the northern lords meant that space was ample.
Elis’ slow progress from the Citadel to the Temple square had the unintended consequence of making the high lords and ladies wait in the cold weather without entertainment. “Wine,” Hardmar commanded, holding out his cup. A servant hurried to fill out. He drummed the fingers of his free hand on the armrest of his chair impatiently. “Gods, will this ever begin?” he questioned.
“There he is now, my prince,” Valerian told him.
Elis shuffled his way to the open space between the tribune and the scaffold. He looked around, seeing thousands of faces staring back at him. From princes and noblemen to paupers and nobodies, Elis had the attention of everybody. He stared up the stairs to where a hooded man awaited him, and it seemed he finally snapped out of the haze surrounding his mind. “No!” he yelled.
His words were lost in the clamour demanding his life. Whether for reasons of revenge, justice, or simply delight in watching the fall of those once high, none had pity on Elis. The Hawks grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him up the scaffold without hesitation. The landgrave kicked and screamed, pleaded and begged, threatened and cursed, all to no avail. Finally, one of the Hawks punched him in the mouth to silence him.
Quill, who had been standing behind the prince, stepped forward. “George of Elis, you have been condemned to death, and the raven calls for you. You may speak your final words and hope the eagle shall hear.”
“Spare me!” Elis implored, staring at the tribune. Every face looking back was implacable and deaf to his pleas. “Save me,” he mumbled weakly to the soldiers standing by his side. With indifferent expressions, they pushed him to his knees and held him in place, placing his head on the block. The executioner hefted his great axe in his hands for a few moments and took position, gazing at the dragonlord until he received the signal to continue. The prisoner continued to beg, struggling in vain to escape. As Konstans nodded, the axe fell swiftly, cleanly, and Elis spoke no more.