91. Master and Thane
Master and Thane
Middanhal was in uproar. Not only had Brand escaped the executioner’s block while standing on the very scaffold, the intervention had come from the captain of the kingthanes, adding insult to injury. That the thane had willingly taken Brand’s place under the executioner’s axe only made things look worse for Houses Hardling and Vale. Furthermore, while his flight had been spectacular and public, Brand’s escape was not the worst thing to befall the rulers of Adalrik; at least they and others were confident that Brand was still in the city and would eventually be found.
The whole city was ablaze after the discovery that both the sons of Isarn had fled the dungeons of the Citadel along with their uncle. Not only did Jarl Isarn have his heir and second son returned to him, his feared and famous brother was also by his side again, ready to lead the armies of Isarn once more. Unlike Brand, there was little doubt that they had fled the city already and were beyond Vale’s grasp. This certainty was due to the greatest blow of all; the escape had been orchestrated by Gerhard, brother to the crown prince, and the rebels had left the city in a carriage belonging to House Hardling. Not only had the realm’s most dangerous traitors managed to flee, their numbers had increased in the shape of the younger prince.
Hardmar had been fuming ever since the events at the Temple square, and his ire only increased upon his return to the Citadel and learning of his brother’s actions. Numerous breakable items had paid the price so far, and the kingthanes were caught in the dilemma of trying to give the prince as wide a berth as possible while still actually guarding him.
The lord protector had been contemplating the same issue. He had received news that strictly speaking, he did not need to share with Hardmar; Jarl Vale was the ruler of the realm, not the prince. After conferring with his brother, Valerian had decided to inform Hardmar nonetheless. Thus, in the evening of this eventful day, the two Vale brothers entered the royal chambers.
The servants, usually present somewhere in the background, were not be found. Inghard was hiding in the library tower. The kingthanes stood positioned by the entrance to the royal quarters, as far away from the inner rooms as possible. All of them stood aside with blank expressions as Valerian and Konstans walked past.
Reaching the parlour in front of Hardmar’s personal chamber, the lord protector and dragonlord was met by the aftermath of mayhem. Shards were strewn generously across the floor from jars, pitchers, cups, and similar. Books were flung across the room, chairs lay toppled over, and any liquid once inside the broken containers lay spilled on the ground. Hardmar sat in the midst of the destruction with the only undamaged bottle and cup in his hands.
“My prince,” Valerian spoke cautiously to gain his attention. “I was given this not long ago.” He held a letter in his hand. “It was written by your brother.”
“That snake,” Hardmar hissed, leaping to his feet and pushing the bottle in his lap onto the ground where it shattered.
Konstans raised an eyebrow at seeing the wine spill before looking at the prince. “Prince Gerhard writes his motivations for doing as he did.”
“Let me guess,” Hardmar sneered. “He has joined the rebels in the hope they will put him on the throne instead of me.”
“On the contrary, my prince,” Konstans gainsaid him. “He hopes to persuade Jarl Isarn to lay down his arms with this gesture of good will.”
Hardmar snatched the letter from Valerian’s hand and began reading it. “What nonsense,” he scoffed. “This is obviously a ruse of some sort. Nothing but a sword against his throat will make Isarn surrender, and only a fool assumes otherwise.”
“Prince Gerhard’s decision was undoubtedly foolhardy,” the lord protector began to say.
“Do not call him that!” Hardmar bellowed. “Betrayers do not deserve titles!”
“Of course, my prince,” Valerian added with a small bow.
“This is utter rubbish,” Hardmar mumbled as his eyes glanced over the letter. “Why does he only mention presenting Isenwald to his father? He ran away with all three prisoners. How much thought did he put into this?”
“Who can say, my prince,” Konstans muttered. “Regardless, however informal or ill-conceived, this is an invitation to negotiate. I intend to participate and see what may be gained.”
Hardmar narrowed his eyes sceptically while Valerian looked at his brother in surprise. “You did not tell me you meant to leave,” he reproached Konstans.
“It is in the best interests of the realm that this rebellion is put to an end sooner rather than later. As dragonlord, I will pursue whatever means available.”
“As if you care,” Hardmar sneered. “If this is so important, let your brother go.”
“Perhaps it is wisest that I go instead,” Valerian agreed.
“No. You and only you were elected by the Adalthing to rule as lord protector. If you are captured or killed, it throws the entire leadership of the realm into question,” Konstans explained calmly. “We cannot risk that. I will go.”
“You are eager to rush into a trap,” the prince remarked with scorn.
“I will bring the remaining Red Hawks with me and join up with those besieging Grenwold. I will have an army three times the size of Isarn’s with me. I would like to see them spring any trap,” Konstans declared dryly.
“Go then,” Hardmar finally said with disdain. “I hope it is a trap. It means either you or Isarn will suffer defeat.” He turned around and pushed the shards of the broken wine bottle around with his foot. “Where are the servants?” he grumbled.
Valerian turned to walk around, but Konstans remained standing. “If you say so, my prince,” he replied haltingly. “With our numbers, victory is assured. Perhaps I will bring the scribe with me as Adalbrand did and send reports back to the town criers of my victory over Isarn.”
Hardmar stiffened and turned around on his heel. “Why would you mention that name? And why have the soldiers failed to apprehend him?”
“The city is large,” Konstans explained with regret. “Unfortunately, taking the Red Hawks with me will delay our search, but it is necessary I bring all available troops with me. Should it be a trap, as my prince hopes.”
“No,” Hardmar declared incensed. “Leave if you wish, but the soldiers stay! I want that bastard found!”
“My prince, please,” Valerian spoke in an attempt at a soothing voice.
“The Red Hawks fight under the banner of Vale, paid by our gold,” Konstans told the prince with a cold voice. “They will follow me to do battle against Isarn if need be. The risk is mine entirely, my prince, as is any glory.”
“I will go in your place,” Hardmar proclaimed abruptly. “You can stay behind. I will handle these negotiations, if they are anything more than a phantasm of my foolish brother’s mind.”
“You have no authority with which to conduct negotiations,” Konstans reminded him with a hint of a superior smile. “You may be our prince, but you are not our king. If you wish to accompany me, I cannot stop you, but I will be in command.”
“You are damn right you cannot stop me!” Hardmar roared. “I will be leading the army, and any victories will be mine! The people will hail my name as victor, me as the Dragonheart!”
“Brother,” Valerian cautioned him.
“If that is your wish,” Konstans conceded with a vague gesture imitating a bow. The Vale brothers left, leaving Hardmar to dump into his seat with an empty cup and a bitter expression.
The following day, Hardmar summoned his court to the throne room. Once the courtiers arrived, they found the prince in the high seat with a great axe lying across his legs. He glanced around the hall at those present, finally motioning for the guards to bring two prisoners forward. They were Ulfrik and Ernulf, thanes to the jarl of Isarn. With little consideration, the Hawks pushed the men to the middle of the hall in front of the throne and forced them on their knees; both had shackles around their hands.
“One of these men,” Hardmar announced loudly, “killed the family of Jarl Ingmond. They both accuse the other of the deed, and we have no witnesses. I have decided it should be handled the old way through trial by combat.” The courtiers exchanged whispers and looks of disbelief, but none spoke up. “Let the gods show the truth. You,” he called out to the kneeling prisoners, “fight.”
“What?” asked Ernulf.
“To the death?” asked Ulfrik.
“Until one man no longer stands,” Hardmar replied with a casual manner.
The Hawks moved away, and both men immediately got on his feet. The combatants circled around each other, sizing up their opponent; lacking weapons and with chains on their wrists, their options were limited. Finally, Ulfrik rushed forward and tackled Ernulf. Both men fell to the ground and struck at the other, but the shackles kept either man from landing a decisive blow. Trapped underneath the larger man, Ernulf managed to push Ulfrik back and seized his opportunity to crawl away. He did not get far; changing tactics, Ulfrik grabbed him by the arm and shoulder to turn him around onto his stomach. With murder in his eyes, the thane wrapped his chains around his former comrade’s throat. Ernulf gasped for air, but Ulfrik only tightened his hold. The court watched in trepidation and fascination as the moments trickled by along with Ernulf’s life. Finally, he ceased fighting and lay still.
Disentangling his chains, Ulfrik rose to his feet and faced the prince, having added blood stains to his filthy and torn appearance. Hardmar viewed him with a discerning eye. “Take off his head,” he commanded, lifting the great axe in his lap with some difficulty and throwing it at Ulfrik. The latter caught the weapon with one hand, took hold with the other, and swung. As the court gasped in collective horror, Ulfrik separated Ernulf’s head from its shoulders.
“Put it in a box and send it to Jarl Ingmond as a present,” Hardmar told a servant, who stood staring with open mouth. “Tell him it is the man who killed his family. As for you,” the prince continued, looking at Ulfrik, “tell me. Who do you serve?”
The thane hurried to kneel. “You, my prince.”
“I need men by my side who will follow my command unquestioningly. Who will kill my enemies without hesitation.”
Still holding the axe in one hand, Ulfrik raised its bloody edge towards the prince. “Without hesitation, my prince.” He lay the stained weapon aside.
“Good. Swear it.” Hardmar rose and walked down the steps to stand before the kneeling warrior. He extended his hand, which Ulfrik grabbed and pressed to his forehead.
“I will to my lord be true and faithful,” Ulfrik proclaimed. “Your life is my life, your blood is my blood. All my days I shall serve my lord until death may find me.” He paused for a moment, looking up at Hardmar, who returned his gaze expectantly. Pressing the prince’s hand against his brow once more, he continued. “By eagle’s flight from raven’s cry, through falcon’s fall till dragon’s rise, this oath I swear.”
“By my table you shall be seated. In life, you shall know reward. In death, you shall know honour. All my days, I will hold this to be true,” Hardmar replied, and the oath was complete. “I name you captain of my kingthanes.” He turned towards those of his protectors present, who looked crestfallen. “Follow his example, or you will follow your former captain.”
“This is an outrage!” It was not any lord or thane who spoke out, but Theodwyn. She marched to stand in front of the throne, only a few paces away from Ulfrik and the prince. “This brute assaulted me and other ladies of noble birth! His honour is forfeit twice, for attacking unarmed women and hostages under his protection! Yet you elevate him?” Disbelief and indignation overflowed in her voice.
“Be silent,” Hardmar sneered. “My decisions are not yours to question.”
“I do question them, my prince.” The title was spoken with a heavy dose of mockery. “After all, your new protector could not even win a fight against three unarmed women!” she crowed, speaking as much to the court as the thane.
“I can remedy that right now,” Ulfrik bellowed, grabbing the axe from the floor.
By Theodwyn’s side, Eleanor appeared. She tore the veil from her head, revealing the burn scars that disfigured her face. “Try us,” she taunted. “You and your master are not the first tyrants I have faced.”
“Enough!” Hardmar declared. “Go find a uniform,” he told Ulfrik, “and take a bath. You stink.” He turned towards Eleanor and Theodwyn, staring at the latter. “As for you, keep wagging that tongue like a dog’s tail, and I will make dog meat of you,” he threatened, turning abruptly around to depart the throne room with speed. He left behind a court confounded by what they had witnessed, an incensed thane along with two noblewomen in the same state of mind, and a headless corpse lying in a pool of blood.
The barracks were bustling with activity. The Red Hawks in the Citadel had been informed they would march to join their brethren in the north at the siege, which had caused a whirlwind of preparations. There had been no word on what exactly was expected of them, so speculation was rampant.
“I bet they got tired of waiting,” Gawad considered. He was sewing to mend some clothes. “We’re all going up the storm ladders at that castle the boys are besieging.”
“How much are you willing to bet?” Jorund asked with shining eyes, pausing from putting oil on his short sword.
“It is only a way of speaking,” the southerner chided him.
The Dwarf gave a laughter. “Too bad. I am quite certain you’re wrong.”
“How so? What else is there up north, except for the cold and some flea-infested sheep?” Gawad gave a shudder as if he could feel the chill already.
“You forget to see the connection between events,” Jorund informed him. “Haven’t you heard about the escaped prisoners?”
“I did,” Gawad said disinterested. “So what?”
“You’re really not from the Realms,” the Dwarf grinned. “One of them was Athelstan. Everyone knows his name.”
“Well, they don’t in Alcázar,” Gawad retorted.
“He is a brilliant captain. With his return, Jarl Isarn’s armies are twice as dangerous. I’ll bet you a barrel they’re sending us north because they expect to do battle with him soon.”
“If he is so brilliant, how did he get captured,” Gawad questioned.
“Good point,” Jorund conceded. “There was this young lad, barely a knight, they say, who beat him on the battlefield.”
“Why isn’t he leading the fight?”
“He is busy hiding somewhere in Lowtown where the executioner can’t find him,” Jorund explained with a grin.
“Really?” Gawad exclaimed, taken aback. “That was him?”
“Did you hear?” A third Hawk joined their conversation, standing restless. “About what happened in the throne room?”
“The prince had two prisoners fight to the death,” the soldier told them eagerly, “and made the winner the new captain of his thanes! He took the oath right then and there with the corpse still bleeding next to him.”
“Gods, this land of savages,” Gawad mumbled to himself.
“I guess there was an opening to fill,” Jorund remarked.
“Why don’t you try to join their ranks, Jorund?” the third Hawk suggested. “You won’t have to march around from fight to fight, risking your life.”
Laughter burst out in response. “A Dwarf in the clothes of a kingthane!” Jorund howled. “These drakonians would tear the hair from their heads at the mere thought.”
“Besides, it doesn’t seem to be that much safer,” Gawad interjected. “From what I hear, these kings and their protectors keep dying.”
“Or like yesterday, one kills the other,” Jorund added, still laughing.
“Hey, has either of you seen Jerome lately? Guy owes me ten eagles.”
Both Gawad and Jorund shrugged in response. “Maybe we’ll see him in the kingthane colours,” Jorund suggested.
“Let’s hope not. Working for these lords is more dangerous than any battlefield,” Gawad declared darkly. “Best we take our silver and keep our heads down.”
Hours later, Ulfrik followed his new master to the library tower; the former had been washed clean of the dungeons and wore a blue surcoat with the golden dragon upon it. Quill was sitting by a table in the library hall, reading, when the door was pushed open with excessive force. Hardmar strode into the room with his protector right behind. Seeing the prince and his henchman, Quill slowly rose and turned to face them both.
“You,” Hardmar addressed the scribe curtly.
“How may I serve, my prince?” Quill asked courteously.
“I want a legal document declaring me worthy of being crowned as king immediately,” Hardmar informed him coldly.
From the scriptorium, Egil emerged; one look at the imposing thane made him remain standing in the doorway. Quill sent him a warning look. “That is not possible, my prince,” the law keeper replied with a polite voice.
Hardmar stepped forward and stared into Quill’s face; he was close in height to the scribe, but not quite. “You refuse?”
“The law refuses, my prince. I am its embodiment and can only act in accordance to it.”
“I am your king!” The words burst from Hardmar, suffused with rage. “Do as I command!”
Quill’s composure did not strain the least. “I cannot, my prince.”
“You are the King’s Quill, you are my servant!” Hardmar screamed.
Quill straightened up, allowing him to stare a few inches down at the prince. “I am Kateb al-Qasr, the scribe from Alcázar,” he declared in a proud voice. “I am the King’s Quill, but you are not the king, and I am not your Quill.”
Hardmar had been tensing his hands into fists, and anger clouded his eyes; he took a deep breath and turned to look over his shoulder. “Seize him,” he commanded Ulfrik. “Grab his hand and placed it on the table.”
The thane quickly did as told; Quill made no attempt to avoid this or resist. Taking hold of the scribe’s right arm, Ulfrik forced his hand to lie flat on the table.
Hardmar drew his knife. “It is a poor quill that cannot write. Such a tool has no use but to be discarded.” Using the handle of his dagger as a hammer, he struck Quill’s hands, breaking bone.
An exclamation of agony escaped Quill, but he did not move. Instead, he kept his gaze upon the prince as he spoke again. “I am the King’s Quill,” he spoke as if reciting from a book. “I am the embodiment of the law. My person is sacred. An assault upon me is an assault upon the Adalthing.”
“Silence!” Hardmar struck again, hitting the fingers.
“I am the King’s Quill,” the scribe repeated. “I am the embodiment of the law.”
“Shut up!” Another crunching sound, accompanied by a scream of despair from Egil. The others present paid him no heed.
“I am the King’s Quill. I am the embodiment of the law.”
“Remove him!” Hardmar shouted. “Throw him in a cell until he wastes away!”
“With pleasure,” Ulfrik growled, hauling the law keeper away.
In the doorway, Egil stood stunned; only the tears rolling down his face indicated otherwise. “You are the new Quill,” Hardmar informed him with a harsh voice. “You will accompany me and the army when we march out that you may record my victories. And upon our return to Middanhal, you will write the document that the old fool refused to do so.”
The prince left without waiting for any reply, leaving Egil alone in the library.
Elsewhere, Holebert and Holwyn were making a hasty departure from their jarl’s rooms at the Citadel, leaving the siblings of Theodstan alone in their shared quarters. While one sat calmly down, the other was animated and pacing around the room while gesticulating wildly.
“You said nothing!” Theodwyn exclaimed infuriated.
“What would that have accomplished?” Theodoric defended himself.
“The man who wanted to cut your sister’s head off is walking around free in this castle!” She turned to stare at him with furious eyes. “You will simply accept this without a single word in objection?”
“With my low standing at court, it would have meant nothing,” he argued.
“It might have given others courage to speak up,” Theodwyn countered. “Or at the very least, shown that you have some kind of backbone!”
“I went against Vale and the prince at the Adalthing,” the jarl retorted, both his body and his temper rising. “Against my better judgement, pressured by you. I made an enemy of these people, and it changed nothing! You would have me continue on this path?”
“I should gainsay the prince at every turn, giving him every cause to despise me?”
“Better than to have your own sister despise you,” Theodwyn almost hissed.
Theodoric took a deep breath, regarding his sister with cold eyes. “You should mind that insolence of yours.”
“I never speak a word that is untrue,” she declared proudly.
“Very noble,” Theodoric spoke pointedly, “and very foolish. Nothing gets a man killed faster than the truth.”
“At least I would die with my spine straight and not limp from years of bending so low,” she said venomously.
Her brother stared at her with narrowed eyes. “I think it best you leave the Citadel. Go and live at my house in the city, or better yet, return to Theodstan. There is little reason you should remain here.”
Theodwyn scoffed. “All my friends are at court. I will not be chased away. But I will take my evening walk for the sake of my health, not that you would care. Holwyn?” she called out. “Accompany me.”
“Holwyn fled, and with good reason,” Theodoric told her. “Take one of my thanes.”
“I would not dream of it,” his sister replied with disdain. “I want solitude from all these brutes at court, not to surround myself with them!” She turned and marched out of the room with determined steps.
In the dragonlord’s study, Arion was given audience with his master. He waited until the servant had left before leaning forward to speak in a loud whisper. “Did you hear, milord? About the King’s Quill and the new thanes?”
“I did,” Konstans replied curtly. “Word has spread wildly through the castle. I have already been approached twice with regards to what I will do.”
“What will you do, milord?”
The dragonlord raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. “The prince claims that the Quill assaulted him, and that his thane merely defended him. I doubt you will find anyone who believes that, but we are marching out tomorrow, and I hardly have time to begin a formal proceeding into the matter. It will have to wait until I return.”
“Very well, milord.” Arion licked his lips. “Did you hear about the thanes?”
“I was not present, but of course I did.” Konstans returned his attention to the parchment in front of him. “Decapitation in the throne room and a traitor made thane, the scandal is as great as his attack upon the Quill.”
“Not that, milord,” Arion explained eagerly. “Apparently he does not trust the other kingthanes after the captain’s betrayal. The prince has already appointed up towards twenty new kingthanes, many of them former Hawks. They swore the oath just now.”
Konstans turned his gaze back upon the chamberlain, frowning in contemplation. “I suppose given his fear of treason, it makes sense from his viewpoint. Though I think he has traded hounds for wolves.”
“You bade me inform you of any changes in the prince’s protection. Do you require anything further?”
Konstans shook his head. “It does not matter this late in the game. We leave tomorrow. The damage with the Quill has been done. I imagine that will suffice for one day even for the prince. You make take your leave for the night.”
“Very well, milord. I bid you good night.”
Usually, Theodwyn would take her stroll in the orchards and castle gardens, but Theobald had decided to keep such areas locked for the night until his garrison was back at full strength. Finding herself frustrated, Theodwyn went up the floors to walk along the castle walls, taking in the fresh air. Most Order soldiers were placed on the northern walls after dark to keep watch against the enemy coming from that direction; with Athelstan returning to command his brother’s forces, vigilance was demanded more than ever.
Because of that, Theodwyn could walk undisturbed along the fortifications. The only soldiers on duty were atop the different towers, keeping an eye on the city and the wide Arnsweg curving alongside the castle. Soon, she found another on the wall, moving towards her; she stiffened and stood straight as the shape approached.
“You,” she spat with utter contempt.
Ulfrik gave a vicious smile. “I did not imagine you would give me this chance on the eve of my departure, walking alone beyond your brother’s clutches. You are as foolish as you are impudent.”
“Be silent, you dog,” she sneered. “Return to your master’s heel.” She made to move forward, but he blocked her path.
“We have already taken care of the ink-stained fool,” Ulfrik told her menacingly. “Unless you beg forgiveness for your insults and grovel at my feet, you will be next before tomorrow’s over, I swear it by the Seven and Eighth.”
“Mad dogs like you should be put down,” Theodwyn retorted. “Only a mad man would give you a position. Prince or not, I have nothing but contempt for him and you.” She tried again to walk past him, but he moved to stand in her way.
“You should learn humility, or you will learn the price that every haughty hag must pay,” he threatened, advancing and pressing her against the crenellations to prevent any possible escape.
“You dare to threaten me?” she sneered. “My brother is a jarl. Touch me, and I will have your head.”
“Not before I have your tongue,” he shot back. “My former master was a jarl, and it did not save his kin from the dungeons, nor will it save you.” He towered over her. “Beg for mercy, you miserable crone.”
She responded with scornful laughter. “Or what? It went poorly for you last time we danced, and you even had an axe.”
“Not another word,” Ulfrik warned her with rage flashing in his eyes, tightening his hands into fists.
“I believe I still see the mark of my shoe on your neck.” Her derisive laughter continued.
“Enough!” he roared, and one hand shot forward against her. It was unclear whether his intention was to grab her by the collar or to push her, but it was the latter effect that came to pass. Arms flailing wildly, Theodwyn fell backwards. She attempted to grab onto the crenellations, but in vain, and continued past them. For a few moments, she plummeted towards the ground; she landed on the cobblestones, shattering her spine and the back of her head with death to follow.