Young Man's Folly
As the days passed, the feast of summer solstice drew near. The city became packed with travellers, and every room was occupied. There was a constant stream of pilgrims entering the Temple and the Hall of Holies, and the priests received countless gifts and offerings. The many peasants from the countryside mostly gave food or cloth, which they grew or produced on their own plots of land. City-dwellers typically gave coin as they could spare it or items made by their craft. A cobbler could leave a pair of shoes, a potter might glaze his best work and place it on the altar, while a weaver would bring a tunic as an offering. The priests took what they needed to feed and clothe their own members, and they spent the coins on buying what else they required. The rest, primarily the food and items of clothing, they distributed among the poor. This was mostly done by the beggar priests in Lowtown, named this way either because they tended to the needs of beggars or because they often were beggars themselves, asking for alms they might give to their flock.
The Temple was open every day of the year, and people might give offerings whenever they saw fit. When summer solstice came, however, it was custom that all appeared to bring a gift to the gods. All over Adalmearc, people journeyed to the cities and temples. Any temple for any deity might suffice, but it was commonly understood that one’s gift held particular reverence when given to the only temple dedicated to the Alfather, the Temple in Middanhal. Thus the vast pilgrimage when even the poorest of paupers came to stand in line at the Temple, kneel at the altar and touch its edge, leave their tribute, be blessed by the priests, and leave again. For the poorest, such tribute would probably be a single copper coin; since the priests giving service at the Temple carried purses of copper coins with them which they gave to those who seemed most in need as they passed through the Temple, some might leave with as much as they came.
On the actual day of solstice, the Temple square would be cleared and scaffolds raised for the games and festivities. Until then, with so many people crowding around the Temple, the traders and vendors were feverishly trying to sell as much as possible. Even the nobility might not be safe from being shouted at, grabbed, and pulled towards stalls unless they walked with armed guards to deter anybody coming too close. Brand had no such followers and instead relied on his worn, deep blue cloak to ward off the hawkers. As the colour reserved for descendants of Sigvard, this dark shade of blue was rarely seen and made people scramble to stay out of his way. Therefore, where some might have troubles, Brand did not have many difficulties in passing through the throng and returning to his quarters.
The atrium was empty, so Brand knocked on his sister’s chamber door and was admitted. Inside, he found Arndis’ handmaiden setting her lady’s hair. Brand took a heavy purse from his belt and emptied it onto the vanity table. A flood of silver pieces and some gold coins gushed forward. “Brand!” Arndis exclaimed. “Where did you get such coin?”
“I borrowed it,” Brand said.
“But there’s a small fortune here,” Arndis said with concern.
“I should hope so, given what I must pay back.”
“Father told me I should never borrow money,” Arndis said, biting her lower lip.
“I do not intend to emulate his fate, so it is probably good I do not emulate his methods.”
“How will we pay this back?”
“That is my concern,” Brand said. “With the right position at court or in the Order, I shall have plenty. Call for the tailors and dressmakers, have them make what you need.” He unclasped his cloak and draped it across a table. “Tell them to make a new cloak like this, fitted to my height and exact same colour. One for you as well. There must be no doubt that we are worthy to wear the blue.”
As the noon sun shone down on the Temple square, the masses seemed to simmer in the heat. Crowds of people gravitated towards stalls and peddlers offering food and drink. Still the main direction of movement was north, up the Temple stairs and into the Hall of Holies. A group of green-cloaked men, some nobles, some soldiers, escorted a woman through the other people who had likewise come to offer tribute to the gods. Despite the densely packed crowd, the guards were able to push forward, led by a man in expensive armour and attire. Near the steps, a group of youths hung about, sitting or standing by one of the tall pillars. Their cloaks had the deep red colour of a jarl along with the black swords of Isarn. They seemed to have been idling the time away, but when they spotted the group in green, one of them alerted the others and jumped down from his elevated position to stand near the stairs. His comrades quickly followed his example.
Both groups now stepped onto the stairs. However wide the steps were, with so many other people moving forward, there was simply not room for both parties. The currents in the crowd threatened to pull members of either group apart from their fellows, so the soldiers and the youths quickly found themselves busy pushing people back with neither able to advance.
“Why now! What a sight,” spoke the leader of the red-clothed group cheerfully. “Commoners in green cloaks who seek to step in front of their betters.”
“I am taking my sister to prayer,” answered the green-cloaked leader, scarcely older than his opposite. “You will step aside and let us pass.”
“And in what world, Alexis of Jaunis, for I do recognise you, should the offspring of a margrave take precedence over the kinsman of a jarl?”
“Normally not,” interjected the woman escorted by Alexis, “but your sins are so many and well-known, Athelgar of Isarn, that if we are to wait until your prayers are finished, solstice will be over long before.”
“She speaks!” came the reply from the red-cloaked youth. “If you wish to add to my sins, milady, I am at your service. Merely a glance at your face inspires me to several,” Athelgar added boldly.
“Be silent, Alexia,” fumed her brother in his green garbs. “As for you, you iron slag, you will not speak to or of my sister, understood?”
“Come now, good Alexis,” taunted Athelgar. “If you are so intent on seeing your sister to prayer, there is an easy solution. I shall go first as rank prescribes and take her with me while you wait behind. When we are done, I shall return her to you in good condition, no worse than if a mare is taken for a ride and returns to the stable.”
There was a faint hiss as Alexis’ blade touched the leather lining of his scabbard on its way up. Behind him, the soldiers wearing green colours lowered their spears in anticipation of combat. “Draw your sword or withdraw your words,” Alexis said with rising anger.
“Do you seek to quarrel, my lord?” Athelgar said smiling, his right hand moving across to grab the hilt of his sword. “Do you give me occasion?”
“You have insulted my family’s honour,” Alexis managed to spit out between gritted teeth, raising his sword and pointing it at the man of Isarn.
“And you have whetted my appetite,” Athelgar replied and drew his sword as well. Behind him, his companions did the same.
As this spectacle unfolded, those nearby had shied away, but many had remained in the vicinity to watch. Now that weapons were readied, however, people began to panic. Yet all the while, others pushed forward to enter the Temple, unable to see the reason why people were not moving. So now, the square exploded in commotion as commoners fled in every direction and clashed together while green cloaks clashed with red. Steel struck steel and screams tore the air. Although the city guard was well represented at the square, they were unable to push through the stampeding crowd. Still Alexis circled around Athelgar with murderous intent in his eyes whilst his adversary laughed with each stroke of the sword.
It all lasted a handful of moments. Two knights in full armour came sprinting down the stairs brandishing two-handed swords and used the pommels to knock the combatants down until either group realised that a third party had entered the fray; unlike the youths and soldiers, they were warriors in the truest sense of the word. “Lower your weapons!” yelled one of the Templar knights. “This disturbance is over! You will sheathe your swords and surrender to the guards, or I shall cut down every last man with impunity!”
As he said this, the knight raised his sword against Athelgar and his band of comrades; his counterpart did likewise with Alexis and the soldiers of the House of Jaunis. Everything tensed for a moment, and both sides could be heard breathing heavily and weighing their options. With a smile, Athelgar sheathed his sword, and after brief consideration, Alexis did likewise. With the danger over, panic was reduced and the horde of people became calm enough for the city guards to reach the site of the altercation.
“Take their weapons,” said the Templar knight. Alexis began protesting, but he was silenced by the knight. “Take their weapons!” the Templar roared as a challenge, and this time none spoke against him. “They have broken the peace. Take them to the captain and let him pass sentence on these young fools,” the knight said with disdain. The guards did as ordered, disarming the young noblemen. By command of the Templars, the soldiers of Jaunis were given leave to escort their lady from the square; the knights deemed their only crime to be loyalty to their lord, and any punishment should befall him.
One of the hallmarks of a knight was his ability to keep formation during a mounted charge. Even on foot, it was difficult to stay in line when charging forward next to your fellow warriors; discipline was easily lost, which could turn the charge into chaos. The difficulty was doubled when on horseback, so the knights and squires drilled nearly daily to perfect their horsemanship and be able to fight as one. This required much more space than was available inside the city, naturally, since they had to ride long distances and at great speed to simulate charging into battle.
Just north of the city lay several large pastures commonly referred to as the Fields of War, or simply the Fields. Here, horses grazed in great numbers to supply the Order of Adal with steeds, and its soldiers could practise their mounted combat. Newly knighted, Eumund practised with more fervour than anybody else as he drove his golden spurs into the flanks of his horse, proving himself worthy to wear them. He and the other knights had been drilling all morning, and with the sun now high and hot, they had decided to allow themselves and their horses some rest. They let the beasts drink from a nearby brook and then rode them back into the city and the Citadel.
Once in the courtyard, some of them left their horses with the stable boys. Others like Eumund, particularly those who owned their horse rather than using one belonging to the Order, stayed outside to tend to their mounts. Thus, Eumund was in the courtyard grooming his horse when an unexpected sight paraded past him. A patrol of city guards, some holding sword belts in their hands, escorting a group of youths. “Athelgar,” Eumund called out as he recognised one of the young noblemen in red and black. “What is happening?”
“A misunderstanding,” Athelgar yelled back. “Get your father!”
“And make matters worse?” Eumund said as much to himself as to any other. He summoned a stable boy to finish taking care of his own horse, retrieved a fresh one from the stables, and rode it bareback out of the courtyard.
He galloped through the city until he reached the estate of the House of Isarn. Recognising the younger son of the jarl, the guards quickly opened the gate and let him through. In a fluid movement, Eumund slid down from his horse and let a stable hand take control of the beast. “Get a saddle on him,” Eumund commanded, “and saddle another horse as well.” Then he ran inside, going from room to room until he found his quarry.
“Uncle Athelstan,” he said as he tried to regain his breath, “Athelgar is being led to the captain by the city guard.”
“That fool!” Athelstan exclaimed. He was sitting in his chambers, oiling his sword. “What has he done?”
“I do not know, but I saw Alexis of Jaunis there as well, and the company that Athelgar surrounds himself with. The sons of Father’s men, as foolhardy as himself.”
“Probably picked a fight,” Athelstan speculated. “If blood was spilled, the captain can have them thrown in the dungeons for as long as he pleases.”
“Would he go that far?” asked Eumund. “Athelgar’s father is cousin to a jarl. You do not throw the kinsmen of jarls into the dungeons.”
“Perhaps not, but it is within the captain’s rights,” Athelstan said, finishing his work. He put the blade aside and stood up. “If Athelgar ends in the dungeons and disgraces our name, your father will be furious. It is good you found me,” he said and hurried out of the chamber, followed by his nephew.
Outside they mounted the horses waiting for them and rode to the Citadel. Here, Athelstan and his nephew threw the reins to a servant and walked with quick steps through the castle. The quarters of the captain of the city guard were near those of the commanders of the Order, and they reached them swiftly. A thick oak door stood open, which let them hear what was spoken in the captain’s office.
“… so close to solstice! You think the king’s peace does not extend to you?” came a voice thick with fury.
“Which king?” asked Athelgar’s voice. Athelstan groaned as he heard that, and he hastened forward.
“It was not a question which needed answer! I ought to let the entire lot of you spend the solstice in chains,” the captain threatened. “I am filled with disgust at you young supposed nobles, causing strife in the city.” As he said the last words, he paced back and forth in the chamber; this he did slowly, however, since he walked with a limp.
“Good captain,” said Athelstan as he reached the chamber. “Perhaps nothing so severe is necessary.”
“Hallo, Athelstan,” said Athelgar with a smile.
“You will be silent until spoken to,” Athelstan said sternly and turned back to the captain. Behind him, Eumund entered quietly. “Captain Theobald,” Athelstan quickly continued. “I understand the necessity in punishing them, and punitive geld must be paid. But may I request that further punishment is meted out by their fathers?”
“I do not know,” growled the captain. “If their crime can simply be cleansed with coin, how soon will I have them here again because they have not learned respect for the law?”
“I assure you, they will not forget this transgression,” Athelstan claimed.
“I am certain we will not,” Athelgar said with a smirk. Immediately Athelstan turned and slapped his cousin’s son across the face with the back of his hand. It came with such force that Athelgar was pushed back, and only his companions behind him kept him from falling. All of them, none more so than Athelgar, stared at Athelstan with disbelief.
“When spoken to,” Athelstan reminded Athelgar sharply. “They will not forget, Theobald,” he promised the captain.
“Very well, Athelstan,” the captain consented. “Out of respect for you and on your word. The geld owed to the king for breaking the peace shall be ten gold crowns,” he said, his eyes glancing over the gathering of offenders. “Per head.”
Athelgar opened his mouth to protest, but then he glanced at Athelstan and thought better of it. Athelstan bowed before the captain in turn. “As you say, captain. Come,” he said to Athelgar and his comrades. “You can explain to the jarl yourself why he must pay a geld of sixty gold crowns.”
As they left, they heard the hitherto silent Alexis voice his disagreement. “This is unreasonable. I only defended my sister’s honour, what else was I to do?”
“Keep the peace,” the captain said with anger. “Now leave me be. Jarl Isarn must pay six times the geld your father must, consider that justice.”
“I’ll be surprised if his father can find two coins to rub together,” Athelgar said with scorn and a few of his fellows dared to laugh nervously. Athelstan stopped abruptly and turned to stare into the youth’s face.
“Was my hand too soft before?” he said menacingly.
“No, Cousin,” Athelgar mumbled, looking down. “I just do not see the cause for your anger. We were merely amusing ourselves at the expense of the Jaunis boy. A southerner, a bootlicker for Vale.”
“It matters,” Athelstan said as he began walking again, “because if you had been thrown into the dungeons, the jarl, your father’s cousin, would have been disgraced. As would your father and you if you have any honour left worth preserving.”
“I was defending my honour,” Athelgar insisted. “He wanted to enter the Temple before me against all that is proper. He had no right.”
“I hold no affection for Vale or any of his vassals,” Athelstan replied. “But boys puffing up their hairless chests like drunken villains in public is not how we defend our honour. You are all of the House of Isarn, and I will make sure your fathers remind you of that.” He walked onwards with haste, leaving the group of red-cloaked boys behind.
“That could have gone worse,” Athelgar said, smiling at Eumund.
“If you ever endanger my father’s reputation in this manner again,” Eumund said, gritting his teeth, “I will skin your hide myself and use it to clean my boots.”
“Why so angry, Cousin?” asked Athelgar confused. “It all went well. Your father can easily pay the sixty crowns.”
“Are you so thick?” replied Eumund with incredulity. “The Adalthing is less than two weeks away. The future of the realm may change decisively, in or against our favour, and you strut like a rooster with your petty games.”
“I was not aware,” Athelgar said more quietly.
“Obviously not, Cousin,” Eumund sneered, packing as much scorn as he could into the familial term before he turned and walked away as well.
In the gardens surrounding the estate belonging to the House of Vale, the jarl’s family had a beautiful arbour; since they were primarily in Middanhal in the summers, they often made use of the shade it provided in its lush setting. Valerie especially took delight in it, and she would spend both the hours before and after noon there when possible. Thus, it was not surprising that she was found there when her father went outside to likewise enjoy the shaded refuge. Behind him, a servant came bearing a cup and wine.
“Hallo, child,” the jarl said as he sat down, accepting the wine.
“Father,” Valerie replied, looking up with a smile. In her hand, she held a piece of paper.
“Did you receive a letter?”
“Some days ago from Isenwald,” Valerie told him.
“You should not be so troubled by him,” the jarl said in response. “We may yet convince Lord Elis to abandon his design. In truth, when the king died I thought that would be the end of it.”
“I see,” Valerie replied tonelessly. “So how should I reply? For I must write him back, surely.”
Valerian shrugged. “Whatever you like. Pleasantries as if you were making idle conversation, I suppose.”
“But does he think this way?” asked Valerie. “Is he also writing merely out of courtesy and nothing more?”
“I really cannot say,” answered the jarl. “But he is rumoured to be slow-witted, so who can tell.”
Valerie opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again. From the direction of the house, another person approached. “Brother, I was looking for you,” said Konstans to Valerian.
“What is it? Something the matter?”
Konstans did not answer, but looked at the letter in Valerie’s hand. “Did a letter arrive?”
“For me, a few days ago. From Isenwald,” Valerie replied.
“I see. I thought Elis might have written to us.”
“You are still convinced he has ulterior motives?” asked the jarl.
“That seems certain. I only wonder if his motives are favourable towards us or the opposite,” Konstans said speculatively.
“Pardon me,” Valerie said, getting up and leaving the jarl and his brother to their discussion.
Back in the house, she walked to the library where ink, pen, and paper might be found. She unfolded the letter from Isenwald and read it again, almost smiling before she stopped herself. Dipping the quill in ink, she began to write.
“To Lord Isenwald of the House of Isarn,” she wrote first, pronouncing the words as she penned them. “Thank you for the courtesy of your letter. However, I think it prudent that we cease communication for the time being until such time” – then she stopped. “Until such time what?” she asked herself. She took a few deep breaths, her eyes glancing over the letter. Then she crumbled it up and started anew.
I was happy to learn that you had written to me. I apologise it took me days to reply. I hope you will forgive me and know it was merely from a desire to phrase my answer properly. While I maintain you flatter me baselessly, it is a source of joy to imagine that the sight of flowers may bring you thoughts of me. I hope you will prove to be more decisive than I am where writing letters are concerned and allow me the pleasure of reading your reply soon.
Lady Valerie of the House of Vale
Valerie read it through a few times, smiled, and sealed it with wax and her father’s small seal.
In the king’s library, two men were walking around a table in the scriptorium. They had numerous pieces of paper with names written on them as well as lists of the same names written elsewhere close by. During their conversation, they were constantly rearranging the small slips of paper to simulate a majority in different situations.
“Are you certain you have remembered all their names?” asked Godfrey.
Yes,” Quill said confidently. “These are all the sixty-nine members of the Adalthing.”
“No landgraves forgotten in the corner of the map?” The question was asked in an amused rather than earnest tone.
“Thank you, no,” Quill said dismissively. “I speak all their names each year at the assembly, I remember them well. Twenty-eight from the North, thirty-nine from the South, and two atheling members, Hardling and Arnling.”
“Very well then. So thirty-five is needed to make a majority. How is the balance of power between the jarls?” Godfrey questioned.
“Jarl Vale has sixteen margraves, and Jarl Ingmond has eleven. In the North, Jarl Isarn has thirteen, and Jarl Theodstan has seven,” Quill elaborated.
“I do remember that Vale and Isarn stand the strongest.”
“Especially considering they are the wealthiest,” Quill added. “But there is also the matter of geography. The northern nobles are most likely to support Jarl Isarn, while the southerners will support Jarl Vale.”
“So Vale holds an advantage,” Godfrey said.
“He does, but it is not certain. The landgraves and the two atheling members of the Adalthing are free to support whoever can afford their allegiance. Question will be if Jarl Vale or Jarl Isarn can sway enough to gain a majority besides any possible support from the other two jarls.”
“What of them? Could Theodstan or Ingmond be considering setting themselves forth as candidates?”
“I doubt it,” Quill said with uncertainty. “I know little of Ingmond, though. His father died some years back, and he has not been jarl for long. He is rarely in Middanhal. He dislikes court life and is known as a pious man.” Quill gave a slight shrug. “My guess would be that he does not hold any interest in the office of lord protector.”
“The jarl Theodstan might be the preferable choice,” Quill contemplated. “He is politically gifted and was a highly capable dragonlord in his time. But he also made enemies, and he has been an unwelcome sight in Middanhal for many years. While I think the jarl of Theodstan would be a good choice for the realm, many might oppose him.” Quill hesitated before he continued. “To be honest, I think only the jarls of Vale and Isarn stand a real chance. They are jarls and natural leaders in the North and South, respectively. They have the wealth and influence to buy or convince the rest of the Adalthing to support them.”
“Precisely why I think neither of them should become lord protector,” Godfrey explained. “They might easily abuse such power to the detriment of the realm, and none will be able to stop them. Or worse, the other jarls might attempt exactly that and cause the outbreak of civil war.”
“If none of the four jarls are an option, there are only the landgraves and margraves left in the Adalthing,” Quill pointed out in response. “Unless we consider a candidate who does not have a voice in the Thing, which seems a very doubtful proposition.”
“A margrave in the shadow of his jarl seems a doubtful suggestion as well,” Godfrey argued. “Are any of the landgraves a viable option?”
Quill’s eyes ran over the list. “I cannot say. I do not know them well. Except for Lord Elis, of course, our current dragonlord. He may be a good choice to be elevated into the office of lord protector. He is already experienced with the responsibility and may be supported by many.”
“It was my understanding that Elis was the king’s choice as dragonlord and not the noblemen’s. Travelling here, I heard many complain about the hefty taxes he has levied. I have my doubts about what support he actually has,” Godfrey wondered. “In any case, we do not need a great statesman. We need stability. Somebody that both North and South can accept, who will keep the realm at peace until the prince ascends to the throne.”
“I admit, no obvious candidate comes to mind,” Quill said a little anxious. “It does not seem possible.”
“There is always a way,” Godfrey muttered.
“In any case, we require a jarl’s support,” Quill informed Godfrey. “Only a jarl may propose a candidate for lord protector.”
“I thought any nobleman, even beorns who have no presence there otherwise, might raise an issue in the Adalthing,” Godfrey questioned.
“Ordinary issues, yes. But to limit the number of candidates and ensure they have the support of at least one jarl, there are restrictions on an unusual election such as this,” Quill specified.
“Well, if the jarls will be needed in any case then the question remains,” Godfrey said, “which of the four jarls might agree with our purpose?”
“There is only one of the jarls I can imagine who would,” Quill replied. “While hardly a kind or selfless man, the jarl of Theodstan did seem to care about the realm when he was dragonlord. He may not stand much chance of becoming lord protector himself, but he will still have an interest in who is chosen.”
“Then we will speak with Theodstan,” Godfrey determined.
The northern wings of the Citadel held spacious quarters for the leaders of the Order. The captain of the city guard had his chambers here, and so did the lord marshal. He was the supreme leader of the Order, beholden to none but the high king. Just below his authority was a marshal in each of the Seven Realms of Adalmearc, who was in charge of the Order’s affairs in that realm. That was also the case in Adalrik itself, where a knight served as the lord marshal’s deputy and was in charge of matters from day to day in Adalrik, much like the dragonlord served the king. To distinguish the marshal of Adalrik from the marshals of the other realms, he was commonly styled as knight marshal. He had his own quarters and study, naturally, in which Brand had gained an audience.
“I am sorry, young Adalbrand,” said the knight marshal. “But I do not think your request can be accommodated.”
“I am trained by Sir Athelstan,” Brand pointed out. “I am more than capable of such responsibility.”
“Sir Athelstan proved his worth in the highland revolts,” the knight marshal retorted. “Have you led men? Have you fought in a battle at all?”
“No, my lord,” Brand admitted, “but my mother was from Heohlond. They will be more amenable to me than towards a knight who has no ties to the highlands.”
“That may be, but it is the marshal of Heohlond’s decision whom he places in charge of his troops. I am sure he has many fine knights who are up to the task. I have no intentions of overruling him and forcing him to rely upon an unproven squire.”
Brand was silent for a brief moment. “As you say, Sir Roderic,” he conceded and took his leave.
Dismayed, Brand returned to his chambers. He sat down and dug out the wooden figurine from his pocket, a king piece from a chess set. Clutching it, the squire remained immobile for a moment, lost in thought. At length he stood up and began changing his clothes. For his audience with the knight marshal, Brand had worn his armour and surcoat from the Order. Now he removed both, although with some difficulty since he had no sergeant to assist him with the armour.
He stripped down to his inner shirt and put on the courtier’s clothes that his borrowed money had purchased, consisting of a doublet made from velvet and a sleeveless silk tunic above it. It was dark blue, naturally. Thus properly dressed, Brand moved through the castle until he reached the great dining hall. The evening meal was already taking place with many scores if not hundreds of noblemen, from jarls to beorns, and numerous courtiers as well as their relatives.
At the high seat vacated by his grandfather sat the young prince Sigmund. Behind him standing watch was Berimund, captain of the king’s thanes. By the prince’s side sat his widowed mother, a princess of Hæthiod and as dour in her countenance as her native home was reputed to be. On his other side sat Elis. Nearby was also placed the jarl of Theodstan and his sister, who was the only one of the four jarls of the realm to have taken quarters at the Citadel. Lower down sat margraves and landgraves, dignitaries and envoys from the other realms of Adalmearc.
Below them were seated beorns; they were people of noble standing yet without landed titles or much else to their name. It was among these that Brand took his seat next to his sister. In response to her inquisitive gaze, Brand shook his head. “No luck.”
“I am sorry, Brother,” Arndis replied. “I thought it made sense.”
“It did,” Brand told her. “Your idea had merit. We will just have to think of something else.”
“Perhaps we should seek a position at court for you,” Arndis speculated. “So that you may stay.”
“If such is possible,” Brand said. “Heohlond is not so far away, but if I can stay in Adalrik that would be preferable.”
Arndis’ gaze slid over the bearlike Berimund, who was known for his feats of strength. “You could become one of the king’s thanes,” she suggested. “With your training as a knight, they will be sure to have you, and you will remain here in Middanhal.”
“I most likely could become a thane,” Brand admitted. “But I think my ambition extends beyond being a mere guard, however, even a guard to our young prince and future king. It would barely allow me to repay my debt.”
“I had not thought of that,” Arndis said. “Forget what I spoke.”
“Keep thinking,” Brand told her as his eyes passed over the thanes. “Something will come up.”
In the afternoon, a servant to the jarl of Theodstan heard a knock on the door. He opened it to find Godfrey and Quill outside. “We should like to speak with his lordship,” Quill said, and the servant bade them wait before he went to the jarl’s bedchamber. Inside, he found the gaunt man going through his correspondence.
“Milord, the King’s Quill and – an unknown personage wish to see you,” the servant informed the jarl.
“Thank you, Holebert, you may show them into the parlour.”
The servant nodded and quickly left; Theodoric followed, walking into the parlour. Moments after, two people entered. One was easily recognisable with his robe and ink-stained fingers as the Quill. The other was harder to place. Obviously a commoner, clad in ordinary cloth that was travel-stained, with somewhat long, straight hair, and with little thought gone into his appearance. He seemed both pale enough to be a northerner yet also tanned enough to be a southerner.
“To what do I owe this visit?” asked Theodoric.
“Thank you for seeing us, my lord,” said Quill. “We wish to speak with you concerning the Adalthing.”
“I know the Quill must preside over the Adalthing, but I did not know you took a personal interest into its affairs. Which, after all, concern only the nobility,” Theodoric said, glancing at Godfrey.
“These are not ordinary times,” Quill answered. “And the Thing that assembles in a few days will not be ordinary either.”
“I can imagine Middanhal has been quite the nest of intrigues lately,” the jarl said with a grim smile. “I am surprised that it would extend even beyond the esteemed jarls and their followers, though.”
“True, my lord, and normally I would not interfere in the slightest. However, as things stand, there are some concerns…”
“We do not wish to see either of the jarls of Vale and Isarn chosen as lord protector,” Godfrey interrupted.
“Now those are plain words at least,” the jarl said. “Let us sit,” he added, gesturing towards the furniture and taking a seat himself. “And why do you take such a stance?”
Quill and Godfrey followed his example and took seats as well. “Because neither holds any affection for the other and might abuse their newfound power to destroy the other. Their enmity runs deep. Or should one of them grow too strong,” Godfrey spoke, “nothing protects Theodstan from them either.”
“King Sighelm and his predecessors were always careful to limit the powers of the jarls,” Quill inserted. “Never let Jarl Vale or Jarl Isarn become dragonlord or wed into the royal line. Never give them an ambition for the throne.”
“And you consider this fear reasonable? That my fellow jarls might abuse the power of the lord protector?”
“You know them better,” Godfrey admitted. “What do you believe?”
“I do not know about Valerian or if his feud with Isenhart trumps his common sense. The ‘Ironfist’, on the other hand,” Theodoric pondered, using the ekename given to the jarl of Isarn. “Isenhart always had a strong desire to have things done his way, and the will to use force to make it so.” There was a moment before Theodoric spoke again. “Why is this a concern of yours? Who are you to meddle in the affairs of the realm?”
“One does not have to be a jarl,” Godfrey said calmly, “to care about what happens to the realm.”
“That is true enough,” Theodoric eventually said. “My next question would be why you have come to me.”
“Because we need an alternative,” Godfrey declared, “someone who will not abuse the authority as lord protector. And we need a jarl to not only suggest this candidate to the Adalthing, but also convince it.”
“And you have a candidate in mind?” asked Theodoric.
“We will require you for that as well,” Godfrey added.
“So in truth you offer me nothing,” Theodoric pointed out. “You are simply here to ask me to achieve this on my own?”
“Essentially, yes,” Godfrey admitted with his lips curled upwards.
“The favour of a jarl does not come freely,” Theodoric spoke slowly. “To do this I must pull many strings, make many arrangements, all of which bears a cost. I will expect favours in return,” the nobleman declared while looking at Quill.
“I do not see how a humble scribe such as I can be of service to a jarl,” Quill stated.
“A humble scribe, no,” Theodoric said with faint laughter. “But the King’s Quill, who presides over the Adalthing, who is the authority on the law of the realm, who will have the ear of our future king,” the jarl recounted, “he can be of service to me. In the future, should I approach the King’s Quill, I fully expect him to remember the favour I showed him and the favours I am owed by him.”
Swallowing, Quill looked at Godfrey, who gave a slight nod. “Of course, my lord jarl,” the red-robed man accepted.
A moment of silence passed. Theodoric leaned forward and placed his chin upon his hand, not looking at his guests but out the window instead. “I wonder how much Valerian or Isenhart would have paid me if I had helped them become lord protector,” he said, turning his face towards his guests with a sardonic smile.
“Does this mean you are convinced, my lord?” Quill asked hesitantly.
“Maybe,” Theodoric replied. “If it is possible to do.”
“Quill informed me that if any could accomplish this, it would be the jarl of Theodstan,” Godfrey claimed.
“In the old days, I probably could have,” Theodoric said with a shrug. “When I was dragonlord, when I had influence and access to the royal treasury, when I was not blamed for the disaster in Heohlond. Now, without wealth, position, or allies?” Theodoric’s expression turned into a smile. “Now it would truly be an accomplishment.”
“A testament to your skill, my lord,” Quill added.
“Two things are needed,” Theodoric said after a pause, “if this is to be done. Firstly, we need the right candidate.”
“With Jarl Vale and Jarl Isarn gone from the list of possibilities,” Quill said slowly, “Jarl Ingmond remains the only choice. Unless you consider a landgrave a possibility?” Quill asked in addition.
Theodoric shook his head. “I doubt Ingmond is a possibility. He is not even in the city that we may discuss it. A landgrave perhaps, though a southern nobleman will lack support from the northerners and reverse. We need a third option.”
“Does someone come to mind?” asked Godfrey.
“The lord marshal of the Order,” Theodoric said pondering. “His duty is to the realm, and he is already trusted with such power.”
“And he is a compromise that would not seem to favour the North or the South,” Godfrey nodded.
“I will have to convince him,” Theodoric said, “but I believe I can. I know him from my days as a resident of this castle.”
“And the second thing we need for this to happen?” Godfrey then asked.
“Both Valerian and Isenhart will be spending their last coin in bribery, and Ingmond is the most valuable purchase of all. With his margraves, if he supports either jarl as candidate, that jarl is likely to win the election.”
“I thought Jarl Ingmond was not much interested in politics?” asked Quill.
“Nor is he,” Theodoric answered, “but he is not a fool. Considering how he might be rewarded for lending his voice to Valerian or Isarn, he will certainly make an appearance.”
“And how does this affect our plans?” asked Godfrey.
“If Ingmond is already bought by either of the jarls, then the outcome of the Adalthing is more or less determined. But if Ingmond has not yet decided upon a candidate, if I can perhaps offer something more tempting than what Valerian and Isenhart offer him…” Theodoric’s voice trailed off. “If I can find out what Ingmond wants and prevent Valerian and Isenhart from gaining a majority, then maybe it can be done.”
“You have my confidence, my lord,” Quill said.
“And mine,” Godfrey smiled. “Mostly since we have no other option,” he added wryly.
“I will have to make enquiries,” Theodoric said, standing up. “And time is short. Once I have determined whether an outcome that favours your – or should I say our – scheme is possible, I will let you know.” Godfrey and Quill stood up as well, bowed to the jarl, and left. Theodoric watched them walk out the door, his eyes narrowing in contemplation.