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When Eagles Sleep

Middanhal

Godfrey walked through the city to Lowtown in the evening glow. He followed the Arnsweg through the Temple square, down the hill, and across the bridge to the slums. Leaving the wide main road, he entered the winding alleys. Lowtown was trapped between the river and the southern city walls, which meant that houses had been erected wherever possible. The whole district was a maze, which the city guard might patrol but never control. It was easy for outsiders to get lost in the crooked turns and streets of Lowtown, never to be seen again.

Godfrey walked with firm steps, however, unwavering in his movements until he reached a large building with a sign in front. Upon the sign was painted an eagle resting on a perch and below was drawn a tankard of ale. The name of the tavern was not written anywhere; in accordance with the sign, the locals called it the Eagle’s Rest.

It was here that Godfrey turned away from the street and through the heavy oak door to enter the tavern’s common room. He walked over to the counter, behind which the tavern keeper eyed him suspiciously. Godfrey dug out six copper marks and placed them on the table. “Two ales,” he told the barkeep.

“That’ll be six petties more,” he informed Godfrey with a glare.

“Six copper per ale?” Godfrey laughed. “The swill you serve isn’t worth half that. Come now, Harold, you may think I should pay the outsider’s fee, but unlike you I never forget a face or a name.” The barkeep grumbled but eventually conceded and filled two tankards of ale. “I will also be staying tonight,” Godfrey added as he pulled the mugs to himself.

“All full,” Harold told him sourly.

“No need for concern. I will be taking that man’s room.” As he said this, Godfrey nodded towards a man sitting alone in the corner. Picking up his two mugs of ale, Godfrey walked over to the man’s table.

There was something unusual about the man in the corner, though it was hard to pin down the specific reason. He appeared tall, hard as it was to judge while he was sitting down, but men of all heights graced the Eagle’s Rest. He seemed thin in the strongest sense of the word, which was also common for Lowtown. He wore a leather jerkin, which was not unusual among travellers needing extra protection on the road, and he was swathed in a large cloak of un-dyed wool like a blanket with the hood pulled up to conceal his face. This was sometimes seen in Lowtown, where not all men were equally reputable and might have reason to keep to the shadows.

The last thing of note was the band of linen tied around his eyes, proclaiming him blind; people whose eyes had been torn out would often conceal the empty eye sockets in this manner. This was also seen at times in Lowtown, where many made their living as beggars and had various disfigurements garnering sympathy. So in truth, none of the individual features was unusual. It was the combination that struck onlookers as odd. Blind beggars rarely wore leather armour for protection. The wide berth that the rest of the tavern patrons gave him, however, suggested that people had chosen to interpret this oddity with caution.

Godfrey did not seem to share this opinion and sat down. Since the blindfolded man had taken the spot in the corner with his back against the wall, Godfrey now sat with his back exposed to the rest of the room. “If you are blind,” said Godfrey, “what is the purpose of sitting in the corner to cover your back?” Then he took a deep draught of the ale he had brought with him.

“I hope you did not buy any of our gracious host’s brew for me,” replied his companion.

“Of course not, I know your taste. They are both for me,” Godfrey said, indicating the other mug on the table by clanging against it with the mug in his hand. “Have you been here long?”

“Some weeks. It has not been a charming stay.”

“I doubt anybody has ever accused Lowtown of being charming,” Godfrey pointed out. “Had any trouble?”

“I had to break a few noses. Incredible the depths to which some would sink, trying to rob a blind man.”

“Perhaps you have made them see the light you cannot see yourself,” Godfrey said smiling.

“Your understanding of humour remain dismal. I have come as you requested. Will you inform me why?”

“I need your help,” Godfrey said, putting the mug to his lips.

“That is obvious. It was implicit in my enquiry that I would want details of what assistance you need.”

“I’m drinking,” Godfrey retorted, slamming the now empty mug down and exhaling deeply. “Ah, that is better. Been thirsty all day and only got one cup when I went to see Quill.”

“I am still awaiting an answer.”

“Yes, yes. Truth is I am running low on people I trust. Otherwise I would not have needed to ask your help,” Godfrey confided in his companion.

“Still not what I enquired about. Besides, there is no need to justify yourself. I am your aid in whatever capacity you require. Even when it leads me to a place such as this.”

Godfrey allowed himself a smile. “I need you to investigate the prince’s death in the highlands. I realise it was many years ago, but it strikes me as strange.”

“You suspect foul play involved?”

“Well, he was ambushed and killed, so foul play seems a fact, not a suspicion. I wonder rather if more is at play than what is ordinarily foul.”

“Your attempts at eloquence do not fare much better than your attempts at humour.”

“Very well, I will be plain. I knew the prince to be a good warrior and sensible man, and he would have travelled with a strong force of his thanes to guard him. Not an easy mark to kill,” Godfrey said.

“I know not of this prince, his thanes, or the highlands, so I cannot speculate. Coincidentally, my lack of knowledge would also make me a rather poor choice to look into this matter,” argued the other man.

“If I still had my reeve in Heohlond, I would not need you. But I do not have him, so I do need you.”

“As you command,” said the blindfolded man. “When should I leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. I will require your bed tonight though, if you can make do without.”

“I will bring a chair to the room and take my rest in that pose.”

“I may also have a guide for you,” said Godfrey, emptying the other mug. “We will see tomorrow.”

“As long as I may leave by then,” his companion insisted. “Best I do not extend my stay beyond necessary.”

“Tomorrow,” Godfrey repeated. “For now, I need sleep.”

~~~~

The House of Isarn had a magnificent manor in Middanhal that befitted their status and wealth as jarls. There were stables with many fine horses, to whom several stable boys tended. The surrounding gardens served as an orchard, supplying a variety of fruit under the care of skilled gardeners. The front gate was flanked by banners with black swords on a red background; the red colour proclaimed their house to be of jarl status, and the black colour was chosen for the iron ore of their home that had also given name to the jarldom. Soldiers with this image on their surcoats kept watch everywhere. Naturally, there were countless rooms, each with their own purpose. One of these was a library with desk and tools for writing as well. It was not often in use, for the current jarl had little time for books and had his own private study for when he needed to carry out correspondence. Nonetheless, this evening a light burned in the library.

Athelstan, passing by, moved to investigate and cautiously opened the door. Inside, he found Isenwald sitting by the desk with quill and ink. Seeing this, Athelstan relaxed slightly and entered. “I thought you were your father. What has you blackening the quill at this late hour, Nephew?” asked the knight.

“I thought – I should write a letter to the lady Valerie, now that Father no longer – opposes – our union,” Isenwald answered. “But – I keep making a mistake and – I have to start – over.”

“If it would not be an intrusion on my part, I would gladly lend some assistance.”

“Would you? Thank you,” Isenwald said relieved.

“Allow me,” Athelstan sat, taking a seat on the bench next to his nephew. “Let me lead the quill, and you can concentrate on what you wish to say.”

“That would probably be for the best,” Isenwald admitted and gave the quill to his uncle before pushing paper and ink towards him. Athelstan renewed the ink and began to write.

To the lady Valerie of the House of Vale,” Athelstan began to write, speaking each word as he wrote it down. “Now, what do you wish to say?”

“I want to thank her for when we spoke,” Isenwald said. “So she knows – I enjoyed – it.”

I wish to express my gratitude for the gift of your company earlier this day,” Athelstan continued. “It was of such joy to me I hastened home to compose this message to you at once.”

“I am glad – I will see her again, and – I hope it will be soon.”

It brings me great comfort to know I shall have said company again, and it is my fervent desire it will be before long,” Athelstan spoke slowly as he wrote elaborate lines.

“That’s great, Uncle,” Isenwald said. “She should also know that – I still haven’t seen any flowers more beautiful than her.”

“A poet lurks in your soul,” Athelstan said with a smile. “I have with great care watched every flower since we were parted and have yet to see any that might rival your beauty.”

“Should – I write more?”

Athelstan pondered this. “No, it might begin to sound dishonest. I think this is an excellent place to end your letter.”

“Can you sign – it with my name?” Isenwald asked.

“Of course,” Athelstan replied. “With all respect and admiration, I remain your devoted servant – Lord Isenwald of the House of Isarn.” He closed the letter and took some red wax, holding it into the candle. Soon after, a few drops were carefully placed on where the letter closed, and Isenwald used his family ring to seal it. He sat with it in his hands, staring at the wax. “Something the matter?” Athelstan asked.

“I merely wonder – if perhaps – I – overstep my bounds with this,” Isenwald said, waving the letter in his hands.

“That is for you to decide,” Athelstan told him. “The letter is yours to keep or to send.”

“In that case,” Isenwald said after a moment, “I will have a servant – deliver – it tomorrow at first light.”

“Let me know when she replies,” Athelstan smiled. “Until then, we should use the rest of the night for sleep as is intended.”

~~~~

The night came and went, giving way to sunrise. While the first light of dawn struggled to reach Middanhal between the mountains, Brand trotted through the streets. He had left his helmet and cloak behind, but he still wore armour, sword, and spurs as sign of his status. Thus, any servants or other commoners quickly moved out of his way as they did for any nobleman or indeed any man with a weapon by his side. Still it took him a long time to traverse the northern city on foot until he at last reached the Citadel and entered it unhindered. His steps took him through most of the castle and up a tower. At his final destination, he gave a forceful knock on the door and waited until a sandy-haired boy of fourteen years opened it.

“I am here to pay a visit to the Quill,” Brand said.

“My master is presently tending to matters elsewhere, but he should return shortly,” Egil replied, opening the door fully and letting Brand stride into the room. “Take a seat if you desire. May I bring you anything, milord?”

“No, I will simply wait,” Brand answered.

“Very well, milord.” Egil returned to his duties, going into the scriptorium where he was sharpening feathers into quills. Brand walked along the rows of the library, glancing idly at the books. Then he also entered the scriptorium where his eyes hovered over the chessboard.

Brand’s eyes lit up and he reached a hand into his pocket; inside, his fingers grabbed hold of a small wooden figurine. “Are you playing against your master?”

“Yes, milord,” answered Egil.

“Which colour are you?”

“White, milord.”

“You seem to be winning.”

“Yes, milord.”

“Until Quill notices that when he moves his knight, it exposes your footman to his thane. You will have to move to support it or else allow his thane to threaten your king. And then his knight from its new position may move again and threaten both your king and jarl,” Brand said, letting go of the figurine in his pocket and finally moving away to inspect the open pages of the book lying on Quill’s work desk, which the scribe was currently illustrating. Egil quickly moved over to the chessboard and stared at the pieces.

There was a sound from the outside, announcing that somebody else was moving up the stairs into the library. “Why is the door open?” came Quill’s voice from the library hall, and Egil hurried outside.

“You have a visitor, master.”

“May I be of service, my lord?” asked Quill tentatively as Brand left the scriptorium and joined them. The squire took out a small book that he had been keeping in his belt.

“You lent this to me many years ago. Now that I am once more in your hall, I should wish to return it.”

“Brand,” Quill said with a dawning smile, grasping Brand’s hands with his own in greeting before he received the book with the title Song of Sigvard.

“It was of much joy to me,” Brand assured Quill. “I appreciate that you would lend such a precious item to a boy not yet fourteen years old.”

“I knew you would treat it with respect,” Quill answered. “Come, take a seat and tell me of your years in Alcázar.”

“I will later, my friend,” Brand said. “I merely came to return that and inform you I am in Middanhal. I will visit many times more in the near future, now that I shall be staying at the Citadel.”

“You intend to live here?”

Brand nodded. “With my sister. Why I have come today, to request rooms. I may be sent abroad once I gain my knighthood in a few months, but at least until then I shall be staying close by.”

“It will be a delight to have you here.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” Brand said with a smile. “I hear others approach seeking your company, so I shall depart. Until we meet again,” Brand said in farewell and left the library.

On the stairs outside that led down the tower, Brand walked past the two men he had heard approaching. One was tall with cloth bound around his head and a staff in his left hand to help guide his way. The other was of average height and less memorable but likewise with a walking staff. Brand stopped momentarily as he laid eyes on him, and they exchanged glances before the squire continued down the stairs.

“An acquaintance of yours?” asked the blindfolded man as they continued up.

“We travelled some of the distance from Alcázar together,” Godfrey explained. “He must have recognised me.”

Entering the library, they were met by Quill and Egil in the main hall. “You have returned, Godfrey, and not alone,” said Quill.

“A companion of mine,” Godfrey said. “One whom I owe great respect.”

“Then I do as well,” said Quill, unfazed by the man’s beggar-like appearance. “What name may I call your companion by?”

There was a pause before Godfrey answered with a smile. “His name is Ælfwine.”

“Most humorous,” muttered the blindfolded man. “You are the lore keeper known as the Quill?”

Quill nodded and then added his response in words. “Yes, I am.”

“An honour to make your acquaintance,” said Ælfwine, inclining his head and supporting himself against his staff.

 “And yours,” Quill responded politely.

“I have asked Ælfwine to travel to Heohlond. I would have him look into the circumstances of the prince’s death,” Godfrey interceded.

“It was nearly a decade ago if I remember,” said Quill. “What do you expect to find?”

“I do not know,” answered Godfrey, “which is why it is necessary to find out.”

“Are you well acquainted with the highlands, Master Ælfwine?” Quill asked.

“Not in the slightest,” came the answer.

“And so we have come here for help,” Godfrey inserted.

“From me?” asked Quill.

“From him,” Godfrey said, turning to look at Egil.

“From me?” asked Egil.

“From you,” said Godfrey. “Am I not right to detect a touch of the highland dialect in your speech?”

Egil looked towards Quill, who nodded to him. “That’s true, Master Godfrey. I was born there, but I was sent to the Temple a long time ago. It has been six or seven years since I was there.”

“Still you have better knowledge than Ælfwine,” Godfrey said.

“He is my apprentice,” interjected Quill, “and my responsibility. To simply send him away in this manner, with this person…” Quill did not finish the sentence.

“Egil will be as safe with Ælfwine as if he were with me,” Godfrey stated.

“Can you guarantee his safe return?” asked Quill.

“Master Quill,” came an interjection now from Ælfwine, “I understand your hesitation, and there are few guarantees in this world. But I can promise you on my honour that I will protect the boy with my life should the need arise.”

“That is a promise more solid than gold,” added Godfrey. He continued quietly, “Quill, I require this.”

“As you wish,” Quill finally conceded. “When do you intend to leave?”

“At once,” Ælfwine injected. “We will not be staying in this city a moment longer than necessary.”

Quill swallowed, but he did not object. “Pack your things, Egil.”

“Yes, master. May I go to the kitchen and gather some provisions?”

“Yes, of course.”

Egil entered his room adjacent to the library, grabbed a bag, and stuffed some extra clothes in it. He glanced around, but there was not anything else suitable to bring on a journey. Therefore, he left his room and the library. As he departed, Egil heard Godfrey’s voice. “After they are gone, you and I must set to work. We need to prepare for the Adalthing.”

Egil hurried to the kitchens. He stopped to relax his breath and then entered, quickly spotted by the watchful Cook. “What do you want?” she bellowed after him while expertly dismembering a chicken.

“My master sent me to fetch provisions for a journey,” Egil said and added, “with your leave.” Cook did not argue against the desires of the Quill and with a snort gave Egil permission to continue. He placed his travel bag on a table and began fetching bread, cheese, apples, and pears, sending a few glances in Kate’s direction until she understood. While Egil was slowly packing his food, Kate subtly moved to his side with the pot she was cleaning.

“Where is your master going?” she asked with a whisper.

“He’s not,” Egil answered in the same low voice. “Just didn’t want Cook to say no. It’s for me, I have to go to Heohlond. The highlands,” he elaborated.

“Why?”

“Don’t know. He’s never told me to do something like this before.”

“On your own?”

“No, travelling with somebody. But I don’t know him.”

“When will you be back?”

Egil hesitated. “I don’t know. Soon, I hope.” There was a brief pause. “Honestly, I’m afraid. But I can’t say no to Master Quill.”

His pack full, Egil could not delay any further under Cook’s watchful eye. He lifted up his bag and walked out of the kitchen. A few moments later, he heard running footsteps behind him and turned around. Kate came almost crashing into him, giving him a hug. “Come back soon and safe, you dimwit,” she whispered, and then she was gone as suddenly as she had appeared.

Returning to the tower and walking with ever-slower steps, Egil caught voices from inside the library. “My reeve was killed in the revolt, so I know nothing since then,” he heard Godfrey say.

“Finding the place should not be hard,” Ælfwine said. “But I do not have high hopes that it may yield any fruits of knowledge.”

Egil entered, and three faces turned to look at him. “Ready for departure, boy?” asked Ælfwine. Egil nodded in response.

“Be alert, Egil,” said Quill. “Do all as you are told.”

“Yes, master,” Egil promised. He swallowed, threw his bag across his shoulder, and followed Ælfwine out the door.

“Don’t you need provisions?” asked Egil as he saw no sign that Ælfwine carried anything.

"My belt holds what necessities I require for now,” answered Ælfwine and took hold of it with both hands to accentuate his claim. As he did, the edge of his cloak rippled back and forth, giving Egil a look at the sword hanging by Ælfwine’s waist, which he had otherwise kept hidden with his cloak.

“I see,” Egil simply answered, and they continued in silence towards their destination to the northeast, the kingdom of Heohlond.

~~~~

Elsewhere in the castle, Brand had gone to the steward of the court. A servant admitted him into the steward’s chambers. “Yes?” the steward said, looking up from his desk with a quill in hand.

“I and my sister of House Arnling wish to take residence at the court,” Brand informed him, letting the impoliteness slide.

“Are you here on invitation by the king or similar authority?”

“No,” Brand said. “But given our noble status, such should not be necessary.”

The steward gave Brand a closer look. “Many nobles will be arriving soon at the Citadel for the Adalthing. Rooms will soon be scarce, but I imagine a cell for you and one for your sister can be found,” he offered, glancing down to finish writing a sentence.

“Cells? As if we were simple beorns?” Brand said in disbelief.

“Arnling holds no landed titles, correct?” asked the steward rhetorically. “The best I can do for your lordship,” he continued, emphasising the rank, which made Brand lean forward onto the desk.

With gritted teeth that made his voice hiss, the squire replied, “I am Adalbrand of House Arnling. Atheling of Arn, atheling of Sigvard, dragonborn – are you a fool to not understand this?”

The steward swallowed with signs of anxiety appearing. “No, milord.”

“Sigvard’s blood runs in my veins. And you show such brazen disrespect?”

“No, milord. Never, milord. Forgive me, milord.” The steward closed his eyes in fear as the realisation of his mistake sunk in. People had been sent wood-walking in the past for not showing proper respect towards the blood of Sigvard, first king of Adalrik. Beads of sweat appeared on the steward’s brow.

“Our accommodations?”

“I will have chambers prepared for your lordship and household.”

“I expect them ready by this afternoon when we arrive,” Brand said dismissively, turned, and left. The steward wiped his brow with his sleeve and looked up to find his servant staring at him with open mouth.

“Don’t gawp, you fool! Prepare chambers for House Arnling,” the steward snapped, and his servant ran off, leaving the steward to tend to his frayed nerves.

~~~~

The northern part of the Citadel lay close by the outer defences and the northern gate; in fact so close that should attackers breach the city walls, defenders could let loose arrows against them from the towers of the Citadel. A series of walls and fortified passageways connected the great fortress with the fortifications surrounding the northern gate. Egil and Ælfwine passed through some of them on their way north, following the remainder of the Arnsweg as it led out of the city. As they were about to exit through the gate, however, they were forced to press against the walls and wait as a company of riders passed through. The rider in front carried a banner in red and white. The red colour proclaimed the company to be that of a jarl’s, and the city guards stood aside to let the jarl and his retinue pass without toll or hassle.

Behind the first rider rode a man with fur-lined cloak and a black tunic and breeches underneath his mail armour. It matched his black hair and reversely emphasised the lack of colour in his skin. He was so gaunt that the bone structure beneath was clearly visible with hollow cheeks; on his left hand, the little finger was missing. Behind him came a carriage; further back rode two people dressed more modestly as servants and finally the jarl’s personal guards.

As the company turned west from the gate, a woman poked her head out of the carriage. “Brother, why are we going this way?” she asked, directing her question to the dark-clad, gaunt man.

“Because, dear sister, the Citadel is in this direction,” came the answer in a disinterested tone.

“But I am dressed for travel,” complained the jarl’s sister. “I can’t show myself in court in these rags!”

“Your rags cost more than when I had the southern wall repaired,” countered the jarl.

“And they are perfectly adequate for when we are at home in Theodstan, dear brother,” said the woman. “But how do you expect me to appear at court wearing this?”

“If I recall,” said the jarl impatiently as they rode on, “I saw old Gelbold twist his back to load several chests into the carriage. Are you telling me that you sentenced him to a broken back for no reason?”

“Of course I have more clothes, Theodoric, do not be difficult. I simply need us to go to the house first and change clothes, and then,” the jarl’s sister said stressing the last word, “then we may enter the Citadel.”

As she finished her sentence, the small cortège reached the gates. “I fear it is too late, Theodwyn,” the jarl said as the guards let them enter the courtyard of the Citadel. “But there may be a possible solution.”

“Yes?” Theodwyn asked eagerly. Her head was sticking out of the carriage, but she kept the rest of herself inside as her brother and the servants dismounted. The jarl moved up to stand next to the carriage door.

“I will find a large sack, throw it over you, carry you inside, and not a single person will see you arrive,” Theodoric suggested. Theodwyn gave no answer other than an insulted exhalation of breath before she allowed her brother to help her out of the carriage.

“Since you insist on humiliating me this way,” said Theodwyn as she left the carriage, “as consolation you will have the steward send asters to my chambers.”

“Sister,” Theodoric objected, “asters bloom at harvest time.”

“Do they? How nice,” Theodwyn answered indifferently. Hearing that his objection had either made no impact or not been understood, Theodoric simply gestured for one of his servants to comply. “Tell him also that the strawberries last summer were rather bitter. I prefer a sweeter variety,” Theodwyn continued. “And I require a room that is northwards this year. Last year there was a dreadful noise from all the ruffians on the streets.”

“I hope the steward’s in a good mood,” said the jarl’s servant under his breath as he hastened ahead of the procession to pass along the various requests.

“And thicker curtains!” Theodwyn cried out after the disappearing servant. “Or else this midsummer sun will keep me awake all night,” she remarked to Theodoric.

“Indeed, the more you sleep, the better for all involved,” the jarl muttered.

~~~~

Whenever caravans from the deep South arrived in Middanhal, it provoked a flurry of activity in the merchants’ quarter of the city. Especially near summer solstice, when many of the goods were to be sold to the travellers reaching the city within the next few weeks. Some of the largest warehouses belonged to merchants trading under the protection of the jarl of Vale. In return for sharing their profits with the jarl, they received various benefits. Vale soldiers in their red and golden cloaks escorted the caravans and ensured banditry was of no concern. The jarl’s letters of authority opened doors and eased passages through Adalmearc. Most importantly, the merchants paid no toll for travelling through Vale lands.

This particularly came into effect in the city of Coldharbour, which was the last port on the river before Middanhal. All travellers and traders coming from west of Adalrik typically followed the river and would have to disembark in Coldharbour before continuing overland. This meant that merchants either paid the toll in Coldharbour to the House of Vale or else traded in their employ. Either way, it made the jarl of Vale the richest man in Adalrik, if not all the realms of Adalmearc, and had done so for many generations.

As a consequence, the warehouses guarded by Vale soldiers were the largest and most numerous in Middanhal. At every gate stood half a score of spear-wielding soldiers; on every rooftop, the same number of archers kept watch. Most of these warriors came from the jarldom of Vale and had families there, just in case the vast wealth they guarded was any temptation. They also kept an eye on the many labourers hauling crates, barrels, chests, and sacks around while clerks kept count and added everything meticulously to lists. One man, whose clothing was of better quality and cut than the rest, walked rounds while he inspected the many wares being moved about and placed for storage.

A large portion of the area was dedicated to salt from the mines in Hæthiod, one of the only sources of wealth in that barren land occupying the south-eastern corner of Adalmearc. The man quickly moved past this. Instead, he opened the bags in the next section, where he took in the scents of pepper, saffron, coriander, and cinnamon; all came from the vast spice fields and plantations in lands so distant in the southwest, few people even knew their names. Bolts of precious silk from cities south of the Mydlonde Sea, produced in secret ways that were jealously guarded; a place where the colour of men changed and the women had almond-shaped eyes, it was said. Fitting, perhaps, as sacks of almonds also came from there.

The man inspecting crunched a few almonds between his teeth before returning to the silk, letting his hands slide over the soft material; even in the somewhat dark storehouse, it was lustrous to the eye. A bolt of this material was worth a small farm with accompanying fields, and the overseer’s fingers trembled slightly before he placed the lid back onto the crate. He moved onto a small chest and opened it almost with reverence. Inside were bars of a rough and unrefined nature. Gold.

As with so much else, they came from mines in the deep South. All of these items, except for the salt, came from cities and places far beyond Adalmearc. They all passed by sea or river or land to Alcázar and then across the open sea to Adalmearc. The gold had impurities, and it would be sent to the Mint in the Citadel. There it would be purified in great furnaces and minted into coins. The Crown kept one tenth and returned the rest to whomever had delivered the gold, which for the most part was one of the merchants working for the House of Vale. Some of the gold would also be made into jewellery by the skilled craftsmen that Middanhal could boast of, and it would in part be traded back to Alcázar along with many other fabricated items; tools, mostly, since it was forbidden to export arms or armour made of Nordsteel out of Adalmearc. Iron ore and marble slabs were also rare in the South and passed this way through Middanhal.

The last remaining piece of this tapestry of trade was silver. The vast majority of all silver in the known world was mined and minted in Adalmearc, and most of it was controlled by the House of Isarn. However much the House of Vale might dislike it, silver was the lifeblood that tied everything together. Silver marks with the dragon of Adalrik imprinted on one side and the eagle of Adalmearc on the other were accepted as coinage everywhere. Gold was far too rare and expensive to be used commonly; one single gold crown represented more than a month’s pay for the labourers who shuffled around the warehouses. Gold was for kings and powerful noblemen to hoard, for merchants to carefully accumulate in their strongboxes. Silver was what made the wheels turn, the sun rise and set, and kept the world going.

“Master chamberlain,” one of the clerks said to the man performing the casual inspection, “the records are nearly ready for your approval.”

The chamberlain walked over to where the scribes had been recording every bag, crate, and chest entering the warehouse. “Are you new here?”

“Yes, master,” answered the clerk. “Andrew’s my name. Here’s the new list, master.”

Andrew gave the list to the chamberlain, who then compared that list with the one from the House of Vale’s clerks in Alcázar and ensured that the two matched and all goods were accounted for. “This last entry on the Alcázar records mentions a smallbox containing seventy gold coins,” he said to one of the clerks, pointing at the writing. On the opposite, new list, this entry was still blank.

“Yes, master. The others told me to set it aside for you to take with you and not enter it into the list until your approval,” the servant said obediently.

“You did well,” said the chamberlain.

“Both me and Conrad counted them and found seventy. Do you wish to count them yourself, master?”

“That will not be necessary,” the chamberlain said. “But since the coins are of foreign make, we will have to melt them down and have them re-minted here in Middanhal, so only write sixty-three coins on the list.”

The scribe frowned. “But will it not appear that seven coins are missing?”

The chamberlain smiled. “Since you are new, Andrew, I will explain. When we take these seventy coins to the Mint to have them melted and imprinted with the dragon and crown of Adalrik, the Mint will keep one tenth for its trouble. We will thus only have sixty-three coins. A hefty price, but the House of Vale gladly pays its due.”

“I see,” Andrew answered, still frowning. The chamberlain continued to smile and stare at him until Andrew hesitantly dipped his quill in ink and added the words ‘smallbox, sixty-three gold coins’ to the list.

“Good man,” the chamberlain said, grabbing both the new list and the box. Then he went outside where a carriage and driver waited for him.

Once he got inside and the carriage set into motion, the chamberlain opened the strongbox. He counted out seven gold coins in his hand, placed them in his pouch, and returned the rest. Then he leaned back and waited as they drove through the city, crossing it to the north-eastern district. The gate to a magnificent manor was opened, and they entered. Lush gardens, large stables, guards everywhere, countless rooms for every conceivable purpose and with red and golden banners in sight from every angle.

Papers in one hand and the box under the opposite arm, the chamberlain entered the house and moved through the corridors until he reached the jarl’s study. He knocked softly and opened the door himself without waiting. Inside, the jarl of Vale sat by his desk with piles of parchment in front of him. “Arion. Are the caravans accounted for?”

“They are, milord,” answered the chamberlain. “I checked the records myself and they match,” he said as he presented the papers in his hand.

“Good, good,” said the jarl. “We must be careful, must we not? ‘When eagles sleep, rats will reign’, as the saying goes.”

“Indeed, milord,” replied Arion. “Your reeve sent another box of Alcázar gold coins as well, milord,” he added and placed the small chest on the desk. “Profits continue to rise.”

“That is tenth year in a row, is it not?”

“Eleventh, milord.”

“Really? You are most likely right, Arion. You always are in these matters.”

“Thank you, milord.”

“Enough work for today. Go take your meal, and tell the servants to bring you a flask of Ealond wine, you deserve it.”

“You are too generous, milord.”

The jarl waved his hand dismissively. “With the caravan in Middanhal I can afford it. You may leave me.”

“Yes, milord,” the chamberlain said and bowed deeply before he left to collect his reward.

~~~~

As the afternoon waned, a cart drove into the northern courtyard of the Citadel. Brand jumped down from the seat in front and helped his sister and her maid down. Then the young squire summoned the assistance of a few stable hands, some to take the horse and cart, some to take their luggage. The only item he carried himself was a horseman’s shield, triangular in shape; it showed a golden eagle on blue background. The colours were faded, however, and the shield showed signs of wear. “You may go home, Henry,” Brand informed the old steward, who had driven the cart. “Look after the house while we are away.”

“Yes, milord,” the servant replied.

“I can feel their stares,” Arndis whispered to Brand, who smiled in reply.

“Let them if they must. We are dragonborn, you and I. That matters more than all the servants, carriages, fine clothes, and whatever else might impress these people,” Brand answered.

“Even so, I wish our clothes were a little finer. Come along now, Jenny,” Arndis said with the last part added to her handmaiden, who was looking around wide-eyed.

After a brief visit to the castle steward, who with much bowing and scraping led them personally to their chambers, the brother and sister of House Arnling could install themselves. The first room they entered was a parlour where visitors might be received. Adjacent was a bedroom chamber for each sibling, which in turn had a smaller, adjacent room for their servants.

“This is adequate,” Brand said after glancing around.

“The hearth will be pleasant in winter,” Arndis remarked as she returned to the parlour after having inspected her private chamber.

“Indeed. Now at least we may eat and live at the Crown’s expense,” Brand said with a smile.

“Brand, I know you said it is not important, but it is noticeable that our attire does not match our status. Mine especially,” Arndis said with an increasingly serious tone. “It is not merely a question of my pride. I would not mention it unless I thought it mattered.”

Brand nodded. “Yes, I will not argue. I will find coin somehow, and you may have what you deserve.”

“I have faith you will, Brother,” Arndis said. “Leaving that aside, now that we are at court, what should we do next?”

“We must keep our eyes open,” Brand told her. “There must be opportunities. I need a position befitting my rank, which will ensure both income and influence. Both of which may help us secure you an advantageous marriage.”

“Still some years until that becomes relevant,” said Arndis, barely nineteen years old. “What of you, Brother? You are just about of eligible age.”

Brand ran his hand through his hair. “True, but until I am knighted and given a post, my future seems uncertain. If I cannot secure a position in advance, I risk being sent to some forsaken outpost. For now I do not hold many advantages in securing a good match,” he admitted. “I may yet suffer another seven years in lands as distant as Alcázar. But if such is to happen to me, I should wish to see you engaged in a promising match that spells safety for your future.” He was silent for a moment. “Should something befall me, you will be all that is left of our house. Your children alone will carry on our forefathers’ legacy.”

“Surely nothing ill could happen to you?” Arndis exclaimed. “The realms are at peace, have been for some ten years.”

“War is like a river,” Brand answered, his fingers idly playing with a knotted leather string hanging around his neck. “We may suppress its flow, but eventually it will break through and do so with greater force.”

~~~~

While the court’s side of the Citadel was slowly filling with visitors for summer solstice and the Adalthing, the Order’s side was likewise busy. Many knights returned from their seven-year postings around this time so that they might also participate in the festivities. Due to the short summer nights, this season was popular among squires for holding their vigil.

This tradition took place in one of the small sanctuaries found throughout the Citadel. Before being knighted, a squire was required to spend the night in vigil, meaning prayer and contemplation upon his vows and duties. Having recently become twenty-one, the time had come for Eumund of the House of Isarn to go through this rite. That was the custom for second sons in Adalmearc; Isenwald as the eldest would inherit the position as jarl, Eumund as the younger would become a knight. He stood outside the door to the shrine, wearing full armour, red-black cloak, sword around his waist, helmet in his hand, and silver spurs on his boots. He paced back and forth, occasionally glancing at the window in the corridor. Outside, the sun was dwindling.

Finally, heavy steps in the distance proclaimed that somebody short and heavy-set was walking up the stairs. After a moment, Sir Richard of Alwood came into sight. “You are very nearly late,” Eumund admonished him.

“All in good time,” Richard replied. In his one hand, he held a great jar.

“Are you drinking?”

“You want me awake to receive you when you finish the vigil, do you not?” asked Richard rhetorically. Eumund raised his eyebrows but otherwise made no reply.

“The sun is nearly setting,” he said instead. “I am ready.”

“Well then, good. Now how do the words go…” Richard said absentmindedly and laughed as he saw Eumund’s expression. “I jest, boy, only a jest.” He cleared his throat. “Eumund of the House of Isarn, born to Isenhart of that house, why have you come to this place?”

“To enter a squire and leave a knight,” Eumund replied.

“Have you done your duty as a squire?”

“I have.”

“Will you do your duty as a knight?”

“I will.”

“Then enter and spend the night in vigil,” Richard finished. Eumund bowed his head to the knight, turned, and entered the sanctuary. Behind him, Richard walked over and sat down in the corridor window, settling in with a big gulp from the jar.

The room that Eumund entered was small and barely furnished. It had a small window turning east, but barely room for more than a handful of people to stand comfortably. The ceiling was also low, almost forcing worshippers to bend their necks as soon as they walked in. There was only one item in the room, the small altar opposite the door, which turned the room into a shrine. It was not dedicated to the Alfather, since such was not allowed anywhere but at the great Temple.

Instead, like every other shrine in this part of the castle, it was consecrated to Rihimil. The Ruler of Heaven, The Black Knight, the Warrior, Protector of Man, The Lord of Dragons and many more names and epithets. His name was invoked more often than any other god’s, especially in Adalrik and among the knights of Adal, both of whose patron he was. The altar itself was simple, a square stone serving as pedestal for a carved figure of an armoured warrior with sword and shield. The base had carvings depicting Rihimil in battle with a dragon. Eumund drew his sword and placed the tip on the ground; before the altar, he knelt where thousands of squires before him had done so in years past.

“When night falls, the squire’s vigil begins,” Eumund recited. “When dawn rises, so does the Knight. In peace, a Knight is vigilant. In war, a Knight is fearless. In life, a Knight is true. In death, a Knight is honoured,” he said, speaking the first half of the pledge. He paused, licking his lips. It took him a few moments of concentration before he finally continued.

“I will not rest while battle stirs. I will not flee where others fight. My Life and Word are not twain. My Death and Honour shall be one. When night falls, my vigil begins. When dawn rises, so do I,” Eumund said, finishing the Squire’s Pledge. He waited a while; then he started reciting the pledge anew.

Eventually he stopped and glanced outside. It was still night with scarcely any moonlight. If he twisted his head a little, he could see stars. Dawn would still be hours away, though. Eumund took a deep breath, exhaled, and began reciting the pledge again. Eventually he closed his eyes while his mouth continued to mumble.

Eumund woke when a rooster crowed in the distance. He almost fell down from his kneeling position and glanced outside. The first rays of the sun were struggling to reach the chamber. The night and his vigil were over. With sore knees, Eumund managed to rise and sheathe his sword. He bowed before the shrine and left the chamber. Outside, sitting in the windowsill, Sir Richard awaited him with an empty jug lying on the ground. The knight jumped down and joined Eumund’s side. “Right, let us finish this,” Sir Richard said. “Eumund of the House of Isarn, born to Isenhart of that house, have you kept your vigil?”

“I have,” Eumund said, keeping his voice steady.

“Are you prepared to take the knight’s oath?”

“I am.”

“Good. We will have the lord marshal make a knight of you later today. Now, though, I’m hungry as a bear in springtime.”

~~~~

The knighting ceremony or accolade of the Order had evolved over time and become much more intricate. In the earliest days, knights or the king himself had simply knighted worthy men of rank on the battlefield after a victory. As the Order had grown and become far more complex, however, so had the necessities for becoming a knight. Now boys spent seven years as pages, seven years as squires, and finally a night in vigil before the accolade. The king rarely had time to knight squires anymore and only did it as a sign of favour towards his most important noblemen if the squire happened to be one of their kinsmen. So even in Adalrik, just as it was custom in the other realms of Adalmearc, the marshals did the knighting. As son of the jarl of Isarn, Eumund might have been granted that the king himself touched his shoulders with the blade, but naturally, that was not possible under the circumstances.

Instead, the lord marshal and his right hand, the knight marshal, were standing in one of the shrines to Rihimil in the Citadel. Unlike the room where Eumund had kept his vigil, this space sanctified to the god was much larger, easily allowing for the presence of several men. The marshals were there, Richard of Alwood was present as was Athelstan and of course Eumund. The latter was kneeling in front of the altar having just finished swearing the Knight’s Oath. The lord marshal, Sir Reynold, stood in front of him with his sword drawn. He lowered the flat edge down towards Eumund’s left shoulder.

“In the name of the King, whose command we follow.” The blade touched down.

“In the name of the Order, whose codex we follow.” The right shoulder.

“In the name of Rihimil, whose example we follow.” Eumund’s left shoulder again.

“I name you a knight,” Reynold finished and withdrew his sword, sheathing it.

Athelstan gave his nephew a broad smile while Richard yawned and blinked a few times. Eumund stood up, smiling and receiving the congratulations of the others present. As his uncle, Athelstan had requested the honour of placing into Eumund’s hands his two golden spurs, signalling his new rank. Eumund extended his left hand first, and Athelstan placed one spur onto his nephew’s open palm. Then Athelstan repeated his gesture into Eumund’s right hand; finally, the former squire closed his hands into fists and could feel the sharp edges of the spurs. His attire and appearance would otherwise be unchanged, but the small difference from silver to golden spurs was enough to declare it to the world. Eumund, born to Isenhart of the House of Isarn, was now a knight of the Order of Adal.

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About the author

Quill

Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.

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