98. The Last Prince
The Last Prince
Of all those that went north, Konstans and a few retainers were the first to return to Middanhal. He had a bath drawn for him in the dragonlord’s private quarters and was in the hot water when his wife strode into the room. “Forgive me, milord,” Eolf stuttered, trailing behind her. “I tried to explain you were occupied.”
“I am his wife, you dolt!”
“It is fine, Eolf,” Konstans waved him away. The servant bowed and left them alone.
Mathilde found a seat on a chair. “Tell me what happened.”
“It went as planned.” Konstans sat up, washing the dust of the road from his arms with a piece of soft cloth. “The prince is dead.”
“Good. We should find Inghard more pliable.”
“Yes. Hopefully the cutthroat has done his task on Gerhard already,” Konstans spoke casually.
“This will amuse you to hear,” Mathilde smiled. “Jerome returned only yesterday. He barely rested between here and Silfrisarn, so eager was he to escape our good friend Isenhart.”
“Did he botch the killing?”
“This is the amusing part,” she continued. “Isenhart killed Gerhard himself. He was enraged by our deception, and you already know how he treats hostages. Out of all people, Athelstan intervened and made sure the Hawk was spared.”
“Brilliant.” Konstans let a rare laughter sound. “Isarn killing the other prince leaves our hands clean. I could not have planned it any better.”
“A shame that Gerhard had to die,” Mathilde considered with a pragmatic voice. “He was very amenable towards us. He would have been a good puppet.”
“He would have revealed our involvement in releasing the Isarn prisoners sooner or later,” Konstans pointed out, scrubbing a resistant spot of dirt until it cleared away.
“That, on the other hand, could have been planned far better,” Mathilde scowled. “The half-witted son is hardly of consequence, but letting Athelstan escape has made our enemy twice as dangerous.”
“You exaggerate,” Konstans claimed with a calm voice. “Isarn’s armies are crippled. It does not matter how great a commander Athelstan is when he has no soldiers to command.”
“You underestimate him. Jerome also brought news of a skirmish between the Red Hawks and Isarn’s forces. The Hawks were forced to retreat.”
“Winning a small encounter will hardly turn the war around for Isarn. Every soldier he loses, he cannot hope to replace anymore. As long as he has losses, every victory is also a defeat for him,” Konstans stated.
“You better be right.” His wife wore a sneering expression. “These mercenaries are costing us a fortune. The last thing we need is for this war to be prolonged.”
“All will be well,” the dragonlord claimed. “We have matters closer to home.”
“What do you mean?”
“The marriage between our house and Hardling fell through. With Hardmar’s death, plans will certainly have to change now,” Konstans remarked with a sardonic smile. “Of course, he is not the only Hardling.”
“Valerie and Inghard? It will have to wait at least a few years, even if you get the boy declared of age to marry before time,” Mathilde contemplated.
“I had someone else in mind.” He ran the cloth in his hands across his face, sighing with relief as the soft, warm cloth touched his skin. “Inghard has a sister, and we have a son.”
A knowing smile spread across Mathilde’s face. “Of course. How clear-sighted of you, my husband. I will tell Konstantine and prepare him for it.”
“Let me,” Konstans told her. “Such an important matter should come from his father. After all, it marks his time to do his part for our house.”
“As you say, dear husband.”
Several days after Konstans’ arrival, a trio approached Middanhal. When the city was still some distance away, Ælfwine stopped. This close to the capital, he had been walking with the blindfold during the day; even avoiding the Kingsroad, there was always a danger of meeting other people. Now he removed it and turned his strange gaze upon his two companions.
“The road must be close by,” he told his companions. “You can find your way to Middanhal from here. My task is done.”
“Will you not come all the way?” asked Egil. “Much could happen between here and the Citadel.”
“Yes, at least let us treat you to a meal, and you can sleep in a real bed tonight,” Kate offered.
“There are many dangers in this world,” Ælfwine smiled. “You can handle what lies between here and your home.”
“I need you to come with me,” Egil stated with a worried look.
“Egil, he’s done enough for us. If he wants to go home, we should let him,” Kate interjected.
“I need your help,” Egil spoke almost imploring.
“With what?” Ælfwine frowned.
“Master Quill is in a cell. You remember him, right?” the boy asked the Elf.” “The prince hurt him, and now he is a prisoner. He is an old man, and we have to get him out!”
“Egil, I am no prince or lord to your people. They will not heed my word,” Ælfwine pointed out.
“No, but you’re the best warrior I’ve ever seen. You could fight your way out!” Egil suggested. “Free Master Quill and get him out!”
“Egil, there will be an entire garrison between your master and freedom,” the Elf gently said. “I am not an army.”
“You killed those bandits like it was nothing!”
“They were few and had no reason to keep fighting me. There could be hundreds of soldiers standing in our path.” He looked at the boy with concern. “Even if I could make it out alive, I cannot imagine your old and frail master would survive the same trip.”
“Can’t you try?” Egil pleaded. “I beg you, please!”
“And afterwards? Where do you flee, pursued by soldiers? With a sickly man who needs to be tended to? Egil, we would only hasten his demise.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Egil, he can’t,” Kate told him with sadness in her voice.
“If your master is to be freed, it will be by cunning or some similar device, not by strength of arms,” Ælfwine declared. He let his gaze move back and forth between the children. “I take my leave now. I warn you that you should never return to the Alfskog. You know what awaits you.”
“We know,” Kate nodded while Egil sniffed.
“Since you never listen,” Ælfwine continued with a scolding voice, “I will tell you this. Should you ever met any of my people, speak the name of Alfmod to them. They will recognise it and bring you to me. Now farewell.” He bowed his head to them and turned around, moving north rapidly.
Kate watched him leave. “Did he say what I think he said?”
“Who knows,” Egil replied monotonously. He began a shambling walk towards Middanhal; a moment later, Kate turned from watching Ælfwine’s tall shape to catch up with the boy.
An hour later, the double walls of Middanhal rose imposingly before them; ahead lay Woolgate, allowing people to enter the city from the north. Kate suddenly reached out and grabbed hold of Egil’s sleeve. “Gate toll!” she exclaimed. “Do we have any coin left? I think we spent the last we had.”
“It’s fine. I am the king’s servant, and you are travelling with me. We don’t pay gate toll,” Egil informed her tonelessly.
“Are you well? You’ve barely said a word since we said goodbye to Master Ælfwine.”
This close, plenty of other travellers were moving along the Kingsroad; one branch came from Theodstan and the other from Isarn to entwine before the gate. These days, there were few travellers coming from the western branch, but trade and traffic remained as usual from the east. For a city of Middanhal’s size, having only two gates was deeply unusual; while it made the city easier to defend, it also meant that both places were constantly crowded. The nobility was exempt from being subject to toll or guard inspection and could ride through without interruption; all others had to wait their turn. Kate and Egil, one looking concerned, the other indifferent, joined the row of people waiting to enter the great city.
“One silver per head to enter the city,” the guard announced with the utmost boredom. He held his hand outstretched while his head was turned elsewhere, staring at a few pretty faces that had just passed by.
“I am the King’s Quill,” Egil proclaimed.
Seeing his hand devoid of silver, the guard looked outwards and finally down to see a young boy staring back and a girl of the same age nervously tripping behind him. “What?”
“I am the King’s Quill,” Egil explained. “Kindly let us pass.”
The guard grinned. “I’ve never heard that one before! That’s funny, lad. For that, I won’t slap the teeth out of you.” His grin disappeared. “Now either sod off or pay.”
Egil kept his unblinking gaze on him. “I am a servant to the king and do not pay toll. Stand aside.”
The guard scowled and grabbed hold of Egil’s robe, pulling the boy to him. “You’re itching to get smacked, aren’t you.”
“I am the embodiment of the law,” Egil told him fearlessly, staring right into his face. “My person is sacred. An assault upon me is an assault upon the Adalthing.”
The guard’s expression turned confused. “Don’t try and confound me, boy! I’ll slap you silly till the sheep come home!” Despite his many threats, the soldier did not move to carry any of them out.
“I am the King’s Quill. I am the embodiment of the law. My person is sacred,” Egil reiterated.
Doubt spread across the guard’s face. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but the Quill is an old geezer –”
“Let him go, you halfwit!” It was the gate lieutenant, summoned by the commotion. “Haven’t you heard? The old Quill got thrown into the dungeons. This must be his apprentice who went north with the prince.”
The soldier quickly let go of Egil’s robe and backed away. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “How was I to know?”
“Quiet, you moron,” the lieutenant silenced him. “You may pass, Master Quill. I was sorry to hear of the prince’s passing,” he told Egil and disappeared into the gatehouse again.
Without sparing the guard another look, Egil walked forward and entered the city, closely followed by Kate. “Egil, that was amazing!” she exclaimed. “You were so fearless! How did you know to do that?”
“I learned it from Master Quill,” he explained in a tired voice. “I suppose I should return to the library.”
“Wait, didn’t that soldier say the prince had passed?” Kate’s eyes widened.
“He must have died when the camp was attacked,” Egil assumed. “I guess that’s my luck. I won’t have to forge anything.”
“The prince wanted the master to make false documents,” Egil related. “He refused and was thrown in prison. I was next.”
“Wait, the prince,” Kate suddenly interjected. “He can help.”
“He is dead,” Egil pointed out. “Let’s get back to the Citadel.”
“Not him! I mean, one prince is dead, and the other prince fled with the prisoners. So there is only the youngest prince left, right?” Kate’s eyes beamed.
“I guess. So?”
“That means he is in charge now. What the old prince did, the new prince can change. And Prince Inghard is a friend to Master Quill,” she explained excitedly. “He was always visiting us in the library!”
Realisation spread across Egil’s face. “I have to get an audience with the prince!”
He sprinted towards the Citadel. An hour later, having used his authority as the king’s scribe to open further doors, Egil and Kate accompanied Inghard down to the dungeons. Shortly after, Kateb al-Qasr was freed from his cell, restored to his position as the King’s Quill, and could return to his library tower.
In the great Temple, affairs had returned to normal after that fateful day when the doors had been closed. The blackrobes had never given any explanation for this, and none dared ask the Templars. Rumours swirled. The Highfather had fallen violently ill, and his death had been feared until he miraculously recovered. One of the Templars had broken his vows and been cast out, like it had happened to Sir Damien years ago. Some swore they had seen Adalbrand, the infamous knave, pass through the halls. Others were convinced that a large treasure of gold and silver had been sent to the Temple for safekeeping.
Two of the men who knew the truth, Septimus and Eadric, sat in the latter’s study. “We have received another report,” the high priest told his superior, holding a strip of parchment in his hand containing scribbled runes. “Not only did Isarn win a battle and threatens to end the siege of Grenwold. The jarl killed Prince Gerhard afterwards by his own hand.”
Septimus sighed. “Perhaps it were better if Athelstan had died on the scaffold. This war may drag on indefinitely now.”
Eadric looked at the old man. “Should we seek to intervene?”
The Highfather shook his head. “Too dangerous. This must play out by itself. Any news of Adalbrand?”
“None of our priests have reported anything. Either he is well disguised –”
“Or he is keeping to the wild,” Septimus nodded. “I wish him gods’ speed in either case.”
“If Adalrik is out of our hands,” the blackrobe began to say, “it is time to deal with Ealond.”
“You are right. They did not heed my warning. Inform the Templars and have a carriage made ready.”
“Yes, Brother. When should you wish to leave?”
“Tomorrow. I leave the Temple in your capable hands until I return,” Septimus declared.
Next day, though few inside or outside the Temple were made aware, the Highfather and ten Templars left for Fontaine.