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Rats Will Reign

Middanhal

Jarl Isenhart looked with fury upon the group of youths gathered in his hall. In front of them was his cousin’s son, Athelgar. By the jarl’s side stood Athelstan, Eumund, an older man with similar features as Athelgar, and lastly a tall man with strong arms and cold eyes. Unlike the others, he was dressed in common garbs with leather above his tunic as armour.

“Sixty gold crowns! For what? So that you could make a mockery of your colours!” Isenhart exclaimed.

“He was a Vale man,” Athelgar tried to protest. “When have we ever shown them respect?”

“Do not pretend your motives were spurred by anything other than your own foolishness!” the jarl fumed.

“I am sorry, Cousin,” Athelgar mumbled.

“You will be,” Isenhart promised. “You will leave Middanhal today. Return to Silfrisarn or take to the woods for all I care, but you will not show your face again until solstice and the Adalthing has passed.”

“As you wish,” Athelgar said subserviently.

“And so you may remember – Ulfrik, break his nose.”

Athelgar only had time for a look of panic to cross his face before the man with cold eyes stepped forward and connected his fist with Athelgar’s expression, which promptly turned from panic to pain before it became covered in gushing blood. Athelgar gave a loud cry of agony as he shied away from Ulfrik and tried to protect his nose, which soon covered his hands in blood.

“Athelbold, have you anything to say to your son?” Isenhart questioned while Athelgar sent a pleading look towards his father.

Athelbold stepped forward with disdain on his face. “Be gone, you Elven changeling.”

Athelgar sent his father a last look and practically fled out of the hall. The jarl turned to the other young noblemen, several of them visibly shaken and fearful. “Pathetic,” the jarl spit out. “Go home to your fathers, pups. Let them punish you when you tell them they owe me ten crowns.” The youths followed Athelgar’s example.

When only the men remained, the jarl Isenhart turned to face them. “Is Isenwald not here?”

“He is in his chambers, milord,” said one of the servants. “Shall I call for him?”

“Never mind, we do not need him,” the jarl said and dismissed the servant. “On to more important matters. Who of the northern landgraves are with me?”

“I have pledges from Deorcliff, Hrossfeld, and Grenwold. They all stand with you,” Athelstan said.

“And the others?” Isenhart questioned.

“They are hesitant,” Athelstan admitted. “Perhaps in the hopes of more silver.”

“You must convince them,” implored the jarl. “We will need all of them and some of the southerners.”

”Can they be persuaded to lend their voice to a northern jarl?” asked Athelstan.

“They must,” replied Isenhart. “Same with the athelings. They are of northern blood. Both Arnling and that pup Hardmar must prefer me over Vale.”

“This will be for nothing if we do not gain Theodstan’s support,” objected the jarl’s cousin, Athelbold. “Even if all the landgraves speak with us, we will need at least one more jarl and his margraves.”

“Have you spoken to Theodstan, Brother?” asked the jarl. Athelstan shook his head. “Have you, Cousin?”

“No,” Athelbold said. “Theodstan is as cunning as he is grim to behold. He is not a man easily persuaded or convinced to our cause.”

“Speak with him, Athelbold,” the jarl told his cousin. “Surely Theodstan cannot wish to see a southerner as lord protector.”

“Most likely not,” Athelstan conceded. “Question is what price he will demand. He was dragonlord once. It must have been intoxicating being the second-most powerful man in the realm.”

“Theodstan’s aid in becoming lord protector is not worth making him dragonlord again,” Isenhart snorted. “If I promised him such, others would renounce me. He is still a disliked man, Theodoric.”

“What of Ingmond?” asked Athelbold. “If we could gain both Theodstan’s and Ingmond’s support, that would be more valuable than all the landgraves in the realm. We need not be concerned about offending any landgraves by allying with Theodstan. If we have two other jarls to our cause that should be enough.”

“Ingmond is even more doubtful than Theodstan,” Isenhart said. “He has often not even attended the Adalthing in the past. It is impossible to predict what goes on in his mind.”

Athelstan made a count out loud. “Isarn and Theodstan, provided we persuade the jarl, is twenty-two noblemen. Add Deorcliff, Hrossfeld, and Grenwold, we have twenty-five. We need ten more. Either Ingmond and his eleven margraves, or ten landgraves more.”

“Ten more?” Isenhart complained. “Even all the silver in Isarn would not buy me the loyalty of that many.”

“Perhaps we can find other means,” Athelstan said calmly. “Silver cannot be the only thing these men want.”

“Let us not tarry,” Athelbold remarked. “We do not have many days left until the Adalthing convenes.”

Elsewhere in the manor, Isenwald sat by his desk in his chambers. In his hands, he held a letter with the seal of the House of Vale. His fingers ran across it momentarily before he broke the seal and read the contents of the letter. When done, he leaned back with a smile and read it again. Then he rang the bell pull. “I need – ink and paper,” he told his servant, who nodded in acquiescence and disappeared. While waiting, Isenwald read the letter a third time before his required materials were brought to him. “Wait here – one moment,” he told the servant, eagerly grabbed the quill, and began to write.

Dear Valerie,

I understand the need to spend time in formulating an answer. I am not known for my quick responses either. In fact, corresponding by letter may be a faster way to receive a reply from me than in speech. I recall that you mentioned your interest in the games at summer solstice. May I be so bold as to request your presence among my family’s seats? By my side that we may watch them together. It should bring me great delight to spend the day in your company.

Yours,
Isenwald

Isenwald read it through quickly and then folded and sealed it with wax. “To the lady Valerie, and – I should like – it delivered today,” he told the servant, handing over the letter.

~~~~

One of the northern wings in the Citadel was reserved for the lord marshal of the Order of Adal. The Order had been established many centuries ago with the purpose of keeping the peace throughout the realms of Adalmearc as well as training knights and soldiers to accomplish this. As head of the Order, the lord marshal commanded thousands of knights and tens of thousands of soldiers from the western isles of Thusund to the eastern reaches of Hæthiod. He was chosen at the king’s discretion and usually from the knights who were not related to the great houses of the realms. His authority was of a military nature in case of rebellion or invasion, and his only loyalty was towards the high king and the line of Sigvard.

Being admitted into the lord marshal’s private quarters was not an easy thing. There were often visitors seeking to gain his favour and have themselves or their relatives given positions of command in this city or that region. Much like the wing for the dragonlord, there was here an antechamber where the hopeful gathered to wait. The jarl of Theodstan was not inclined towards waiting, however, and Theodoric strode past them all briskly and beat his fist against the next door. For a moment, nothing happened until a shuffle could be heard behind the door. A servant appeared. “Yes, milord?” he asked after inspecting Theodoric’s clothes and colours.

“Tell the lord marshal that the jarl of Theodstan wishes to speak to him.”

“Wait here, milord,” the servant answered and disappeared. A few moments passed. “His lordship will see you in the atrium,” the servant said as he returned. Theodoric smiled and stepped inside. Behind him, objections and outbursts could be heard from the people still waiting; sounds that were efficiently blocked when the heavy oak door slammed shut again.

In the parlour, Theodoric found the lord marshal waiting for him. He was neither tall nor short but clean-shaven with short brown hair. He cut a heavy figure, though it insinuated strength rather than intemperance. “Theodoric,” said the lord marshal. “It has been some years now since I last found you in Middanhal.”

The jarl walked forward and they clasped hands in greeting. “It is good to see you, Reynold,” the jarl replied.

“I see you still have nine fingers,” Reynold said, nodding towards Theodoric’s left hand missing its little finger.

“Better than eight,” Theodoric said smiling.

“Come, sit,” invited Reynold and extended his hand towards the chairs. “You are not usually lured to Middanhal,” continued the lord marshal. “But I suppose this was an assembly you would not miss.”

“Indeed not,” said Theodoric. “In fact, you touch upon the reason for my presence in your chambers.”

“I suspected you did not merely come for the sake of courtesy,” Reynold said with a cunning look.

“You know me well. I am here because I wish to make a proposal.”

“Yes? Well, go on,” said the knight.

“Yes, no point in hesitation. I wish to propose you as lord protector to the Adalthing.”

Reynold’s bushy eyebrows rose in surprise. “Now that I did not suspect.”

“Do not let that deter you from accepting.”

“Come now, Theodoric, you cannot be serious. I am already lord marshal. I have enough duties as it is.”

Theodoric shrugged. “You will name a dragonlord, of course. The knight marshal seems appropriate. Or I could be persuaded,” the jarl added slyly, which made the marshal laugh. “Besides, there is very little you will have to do as lord protector. In fact, the less you do the better. At least that will keep the precarious balance between the jarls.”

“You wish to have me elected merely so I may do nothing?” Reynold questioned.

“Yes. Perhaps that does not sound very glorious, but it is preferable. Should Vale or Isarn become lord protector, you can rest assured they will do something, and it may easily be a problem for the realm.”

“You are trying to play on my sense of duty, Theodoric.”

“I am glad you picked up on that. Yes, Reynold, I am. You are the only possible choice that both sides might agree on, who will not do something foolish with that much power. You have already proven that as lord marshal.”

“Do you have the support of others to actually convince the Adalthing?”

“More or less,” the jarl said smoothly. “You may leave all that to me.”

“I am not quite convinced,” the lord marshal admitted. “It seems obvious that both Jarl Vale and Jarl Isarn will seek the office for themselves. If neither of them supports you, how will you gain enough support?”

“As said, you may leave such headaches to me. I will only require that you validate any possible deals I strike to secure their aid.”

“Deals I am sure there will be many of,” Reynold muttered.

“If you truly doubt I can accomplish this, where is the harm in agreeing to it? If I cannot achieve this, nothing changes for you.”

“Except my name becomes laughter because I sought an office I could never gain,” Reynold objected.

“Not as much as mine. Besides, since when have you cared for the opinions of jarls, margraves, and landgraves? You, who was born lower than they and yet now command more men than a king,” Theodoric said with a sly smile.

Laughter rumbled in the lord marshal’s stomach. “Your words drip with so much honey, Theodoric, I sometimes wonder how you keep the bees away. Very well, I will agree to it. If for no other reason than I am curious to see what you will do.”

“As am I,” Theodoric smiled.

~~~~

At the noon meal, Brand came to the dining hall wearing his velvet clothes and took a seat by his sister. “Any luck?” she enquired.

“No,” Brand admitted. “I could not even get an audience with the lord marshal.”

“Oh,” Arndis said disheartened. “I am sorry.”

“Forget it,” Brand said, shaking his head. “How have you spent your morning?”

“I spoke with the sister of the jarl of Theodstan. Theodwyn is her name. We spent an hour in the castle garden.”

“Was she interesting company?”

“You might say,” Arndis said with a conflicted tone. “She seems oblivious in some ways, yet her observations were sharp in other respects. She knew my dressmaker simply by looking at me.”

“An unusual gift, but a gift nonetheless,” Brand said amused.

“She is a font of knowledge though, from the time when her brother was dragonlord. Before Lord Elis. She remembered Father, for instance,” Arndis said. This grabbed Brand’s attention more earnestly, but before he could react, a servant approached and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, milord, milady,” he said. “If you could please stand and follow me.”

Arndis immediately stood up, whereas Brand turned his head and frowned. “Is something amiss?”

“The prince is curious to make your acquaintance.”

Brand hurried to follow his sister’s example, and the servant led them up the hall to the high table. Room had been cleared so that they might sit next to the future king’s mother, who herself sat next to the young prince Sigmund. Brand and Arndis both bowed deeply before they took their seats, and food and drink was brought for them.

“I noticed you entering the other day,” said Prince Sigmund.

“Then you have a keen eye, my prince,” Brand answered.

“I saw your blue tunic,” the prince continued. “And grandfather told me that only royals wear that colour.”

“Your grandfather the king was correct,” Brand said. “My sister, Arndis, and I have your ancestor Arn as our ancestor as well.”

“I never knew,” said the prince. “Grandfather never told me of other family members. Well, there are all of Mother’s relatives, of course, but I do not like Hæthiod. It is not a nice place.”

“Manners, Sigmund,” scolded his mother. “Your grandfather never told you of these people because there was no need to know,” she added with a superior glance at the siblings of House Arnling.

“What is this?” asked a voice cheerfully. “Baldric sees two eagle chicks at the table. How quick they have learned to fly, and how far they have soared!” From behind came a short man dressed in bright, intermingling colours.

“Baldric!” exclaimed the prince. “Where have you been? I was dreadfully bored all morning with my tutors.”

“Alas!” cried out the hunchbacked jester and dramatically placed his hand against his brow as if he were about to faint. “Had Baldric only known such vicious creatures as tutors and teachers prowled the Citadel, Baldric would at once have come to aid!” As he said these words, he grabbed a wooden bowl and a roasting spit, holding them as sword and shield, and began to duel an invisible creature. Obviously, it was a creature of terrible strength, for it soon appeared that Baldric was losing, much to the young prince’s delight, who clapped his hands.

“Baldric, must you interrupt us with your follies while we eat?” asked Sigmund’s mother, clearly less approving than her son.

“But of course, oh most purpled lady! If Baldric only interrupts when it is desired, it would not truly be an interruption, would it?”

“You are so much fun!” said the prince. “Make a title for him!” he continued, pointing at Elis, the dragonlord.

“Baldric would never dare,” the jester said most earnest. “He always stays away from dragons, for it is common knowledge among them that court jesters taste excellent when roasted.”

“A wise decision,” said Elis.

“All dragons are dangerous, even those who have become too heavy for flight,” the jester added while raising his spit in the air. A few dared to smile at this jab at Elis’ weight, though they did not let the dragonlord see their amusement.

“What of Berimund? Say something about him!” the prince demanded, turning his head to look at his kingthane who stood behind the table.

“What, oh most powerful yet not very tall lord,” the hunchback said indignantly. “First a dragon and then a bear?” The jester burst out in loud wails. “Must Baldric next go into every marsh, every bog and let the Elvenfolk eat him, hair and hunch?” He accompanied his sobbing by tearing at his own hair in a dramatic fashion that called for laughter rather than sympathy.

“You are very silly, Baldric,” said the prince. “My tutors say the Elves all died a thousand years ago.”

“Say that to Baldric when their fangs sink into his tender, tender flesh,” Baldric retorted. “Besides, there is no need for Baldric to make fun of Berimund, most mighty of warriors, renowned hero of the realm, slayer of many men, and eater of smelly cheese. Baldric has already done his duty many times over. For every night, after Berimund sleeps, Baldric has entered his room, placed rotten fish in his bed, and removed it again in the morning before Berimund awakes. It is now common knowledge among the servants that Berimund’s feet smell much better.”

“I knew something was going on!” came a deep roar from behind the table as Berimund lunged forward to grab the jester, but the small hunched man was quicker and dove under the prince’s chair.

“Calm yourself,” the prince’s mother admonished the captain of the thanes.

“I am sorry, Lady Isabel,” Berimund muttered. Sensing that the danger had passed, Baldric dared to leave his hiding place and propped his head up next to the prince.

“Say something funny about him,” Prince Sigmund said and pointed at Brand.

“Now an eagle? Baldric is hesitant, for their beaks are sharp and they fly up high. Baldric knew an eagle once who flew too close to the sun. But he has rarely seen a bird with such blue plume. He wonders what other bird lent its feathers that this eagle may fly with such bold colours.”

Brand did not reply, but only smiled and drank from his ale. “You are not going to say something in return?” asked the prince of Brand.

“My prince, in my experience one should never attempt to match wits with fools. If you win, you prove only that you are wiser than a fool, which should be self-evident. If you lose, you have made yourself seem to be the greater fool.”

“That makes sense,” the prince said, frowning as he digested this. “When Berimund played chess against Baldric and lost, he certainly did look foolish. Berimund cannot even win against me.”

“A shame I am not among your thanes,” Brand ventured to say. “I would wager that I might prove a better opponent than your captain.”

“Perhaps we can play one day,” said the prince.

“It would be my honour,” Brand said, inclining his head. Then the prince’s attention was caught by another foolery from Baldric.

“Well done, Brother,” said Arndis. “This is certainly a start.”

“I may have an idea,” Brand said quietly. “But I need you to ask a few questions of your new friends.”

~~~~

When it was past noon the same day, Athelstan entered the courtside of the Citadel and passed through its corridors until he knocked on a door. “Yes, milord?” asked the servant in response to his knocking.

“Sir Athelstan of Isarn. I have an arrangement to meet the lord Marcaster,” Athelstan said.

“You are expected, milord,” the servant replied and showed the knight into the parlour typical of such quarters. Inside sat the landgrave of Marcaster along with his wife, sons, and daughter.

“Sir Athelstan, an honour,” said Marcaster as his whole family rose to greet the visitor.

“The honour is mine, Lord Marcaster,” replied Athelstan, bowing before the nobleman and afterwards his wife. “I should wish to speak privately with you, if possible.”

Marcaster glanced at his wife, who understood. “Come, children,” she said, leading them outside along with most of the servants; the one who had answered the door retreated into an inner chamber.

“I am here on behalf of my brother,” Athelstan began.

“I could surmise as much,” Marcaster said. “Wine?” he offered while grabbing his own cup.

“My brother is interested in your support at the Adalthing,” Athelstan said, declining the offer of wine.

“That,” Marcaster said, “I could surmise as well.”

“The jarl Isarn wonders what Lord Marcaster might require in return for his support.”

“That is the question,” Marcaster smiled. “In a situation such as this, southern landgraves rarely lend their voices to northern jarls.”

“But not unprecedented. And the mines of Isarn are rich with silver.”

Marcaster stood silent for a moment. “Fifty crowns.”

“That is a steep price for merely one voice,” Athelstan argued.

“If the jarl Isarn wishes to gain favour south of Middanhal,” Marcaster replied, “he must be prepared to pay the price.”

“Is there nothing else the landgrave of Marcaster might desire? Plans for which the aid of a jarl or indeed lord protector would be useful.”

“My lands are bountiful, I have two sons and a daughter for good measure, what more could I need? But gold, one can always use gold.”

“My brother has sons as well who are both unwed,” Athelstan suggested cautiously. “A union favourable for Marcaster might be arranged.”

“A kind thought,” Marcaster smiled again. “But I am fond of my daughter. Isarn and Marcaster are at opposite ends of the realm, I would hardly ever see her.”

Athelstan stood unmoving, thoughts in his head turning. “Fifty crowns?” he said at last.

“Exactly that,” Marcaster confirmed.

“I will convey your response to my brother,” Athelstan said and left.

Marcaster stood, watching the door close behind the knight. “Marry my daughter to a northerner,” he said scornfully once the door was closed. “Bloody muttonheads,” he mumbled as he moved to open a door to one of the chambers. Behind it stood Arion, chamberlain of Vale. “You heard what Isarn offers,” Marcaster told Arion, who stepped into the parlour.

“You seem very disdainful of the northerners,” Arion said. “Surely you would not demand the same price of Jarl Vale?”

“Gold is gold,” Marcaster said casually. “But maybe I will settle for forty crowns,” he continued, “if my youngest son becomes ward of the jarl.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Arion smiled and inclined his head. “I am certain my master can agree to this,” the chamberlain said and left as well.

When he was alone in the parlour, the landgrave of Marcaster called his servant in the adjacent chamber to attention. “Yes, milord?” asked the servant.

“Bring a message to Lord Elis, and none others are to hear it,” Marcaster specified. “Tell him he was right. Isarn attempted to gain my support, but he is outbid by Vale. I will be supporting Vale in the Adalthing until Lord Elis tells me otherwise.”

“As you say, milord,” the servant replied with a bow.

~~~~

It was early afternoon when Theodoric, followed by a small handful of his thanes, walked down the Arnsweg from the Citadel. Passing the Temple square, they entered one of the districts dominated by merchants. The jarl stopped outside a house, and one of his thanes knocked on the door. A servant appeared, and upon recognising the deep red colour of their cloaks, he allowed the company inside without hesitation. “Tell the alderman that the jarl of Theodstan wishes to see him,” Theodoric told the servant, who bowed and complied. Within moments, Theodoric was shown further inside the house. He left his thanes in the hallway and entered the alderman’s study.

Inside, Theodoric found a man richly dressed in furs, despite the summer heat, and with a golden chain across his bulging stomach. It was the sign of his title as alderman of the guilds in Middanhal. His responsibilities were many and his influence great; trade was his domain and coin his servant. “Milord, what an unexpected pleasure,” said the alderman, though his expression did not show any signs of delight.

“Alderman Edwin, it has been too long,” Theodoric replied, wearing a sardonic smile. “Not since I was dragonlord, I think.”

“And a happy time that was,” Edwin added. “You were most agreeable to the guilds. Not that I cast any aspersions on Lord Elis,” he said quickly.

“Of course not.” Theodoric’s smile grew wider. “Though I do hear the merchants groan under his taxes.”

“Ours is not an easy life,” Edwin said sadly.

“Indeed not. But allow me to touch upon why I am here. Something has been on my mind, Edwin, with which you may help me,” Theodoric said casually.

“Anything to serve a jarl of the realm,” Edwin answered in a servile manner.

“I have been wondering how to make friends with another jarl. Ingmond to be precise. How to persuade him to see things my way at the Adalthing.”

“I recall you were most apt at persuasion upon a time, milord,” Edwin said, licking his lips.

“I had certain tools at my disposal then, which I do not now,” Theodoric said, gesturing with open hands.

“The winds of fate can be fickle,” Edwin lamented.

“But I have noticed one thing. An increase in the traffic of stone and marble from Heohlond, passing right through Theodstan on its way to Middanhal. Can you guess its destination?”

“I would not know, milord,” Edwin swallowed.

“Ingmond,” Theodoric smiled. “Which makes sense. The jarl’s father spent his entire life trying to finish that temple. Last year, from what I heard, they had little more than the foundation made.”

“Is that so,” Edwin said, his eyes glancing elsewhere.

“But now, stone and marble to build. Which of course requires masons and artisans in large numbers to hew and cut and carve.”

“You are a fountain of knowledge, milord,” Edwin said, his fingers fidgeting with his golden chain.

“All of which requires coin. In large quantity. Coin paid to the masons’ guild and the artisans’ guild. Must I continue?”

“I am not certain what his lordship means,” Edwin replied, drinking from a small cup.

“Who is paying?”

The drink in Edwin’s hand sloshed around. “What?” coughed the alderman.

“Who is paying?” Theodoric repeated, stressing each word.

“Those are guild matters,” Edwin protested half-heartedly.

“Now, Edwin, this is merely between you and me. I will make it easy,” Theodoric spoke patiently as to a little child. “Does Ingmond pay the guilds with gold or with silver?”

“Both, I presume,” Edwin said confused.

Theodoric sighed. “But does it come from the coffers of Vale or the mines of Isarn? And how much?”

“Oh,” Edwin exclaimed. “Neither.”

“What?” Theodoric could not hide his surprise.

“The guilds have been paid by the royal treasury,” Edwin explained, which made Theodoric lean back.

“How very interesting,” the jarl of Theodstan finally remarked.

“If that is so, milord,” Edwin said, a cunning smile finding an awkward home on his portly face, “maybe there is something else you will find interesting.”

“You have my undivided attention,” Theodoric said, leaning forward again.

“It is not the only affair between the Crown and the guilds,” Edwin spoke quietly. “Should the guilds be able to rely upon you in the upcoming Adalthing…”

“I am ever a friend to the guilds,” Theodoric smiled.

“Then perhaps there is a service I may perform for you, milord,” Edwin told the jarl while his hand caressed the golden chain across his stomach.

~~~~

A knock was heard on the door to the chambers of the dragonlord. As the servant opened it, he found a young nobleman in blue velvet. “Yes, milord?” asked the servant.

“I am Adalbrand, lord of House Arnling. I wish to speak with his lordship,” Brand said.

“One moment, milord,” the servant answered. He disappeared deeper into the wing and returned soon after. “His lordship will see you in his study,” the servant told Brand, guiding him to the room.

“House Arnling,” Elis said contemplatively as Brand took the seat offered to him. “I saw you at the meal. You are Arngrim’s son, I take it.”

“I am, my lord,” Brand said. “I thank you for allowing me an audience.”

“I am curious,” Elis replied, “what Arngrim’s son wishes to see me for. Are you in the Order as he was?”

“Yes, milord. I will be knighted in about a month, depending on when Sir Athelstan deems me ready.”

“You are his squire?” Elis asked with raised eyebrows. “That explains why I have never seen you before.”

“Indeed, my lord. Recently returned, I am now looking to make myself useful at court.”

“More useful than as a simple knight of the Order, I take it,” Elis said with a smile.

“It has come to my notice that Lord Berimund may not be the most appropriate choice as captain of the kingthanes,” Brand ventured to say.

“It has come to your notice, has it?” Elis said, his smile turning slightly scornful. “He is among the best warriors in the land, a former champion of the grand fight.”

“I cast no doubt upon his prowess as a warrior,” Brand hastened to say, “only his capabilities in other regards.”

“Very well, I am intrigued. Go on,” Elis said with a gesture.

“Being responsible for our young prince’s safety, Lord Berimund spends most of his time with him. Yet Lord Berimund does not necessarily strike me as a man much suited to guide such an impressionable young mind as our prince.”

Elis’s expression turned contemplative as he leaned over his desk. “Continue.”

“Once the prince is old enough to take the throne in ten years, he will be heavily influenced by Lord Berimund’s opinions and behaviour. Perhaps, for the sake of the realm and the prince himself, a more amenable captain for the thanes should be found.” Elis did not reply, but his eyes scrutinised Brand. “The first thing that the prince must do upon taking power is choose a dragonlord to serve as his right hand. I can only imagine he will seek the advice and be steered by the one person who has cared for him, protected and befriended him,” Brand told the dragonlord. Still Elis did not reply, but he leaned back and narrowed his eyes in contemplation. “If the captain of the kingthanes is your friend, and our future king consults him for advice on whom to choose as the dragonlord…” Brand allowed his last sentence to hang in the air.

“And I will not have to think hard to find someone more suitable than Lord Berimund, I take it,” Elis said.

“No, my lord,” Brand replied. “I am trained and suited for the task of commanding the thanes. It is only proper that the prince is protected by somebody of his own blood, his own kinsman.”

Elis placed his chin against his hand in rumination for a moment. “Removing Lord Berimund would be an unpopular move and not in my best interest only two days before the Adalthing. But,” he continued, “afterwards it would be a different matter. If I remember correctly, as an atheling of Sigvard and lord of your house, you have a voice in the Thing?”

“I do, my lord,” Brand answered.

“I think we may have an accord,” Elis smiled. “When the Thing is concluded, we will both find ourselves in our desired positions.” Brand took his leave and Elis’ servant led him out. When the servant returned, he found Elis making marks on a long list of names and numbers. The names all belonged to people who had a vote in the Adalthing. “I will need you to deliver a few messages, Eolf,” said Elis as he began to write.

Outside, Brand walked with quick steps through the Citadel until he reached his own quarters. “Arndis,” he called out as he stepped through the door. She emerged from her bedchamber.

“What is it?”

“Smile, my sister. You were correct that there is discord between Lord Elis and Lord Berimund.”

“Have you spoken with Lord Elis already?”

“I have,” Brand said. “We reached an agreement. I will take position as captain of the thanes.”

Arndis struck her hands together in joy and then embraced her brother. “Wondrous news!”

“It is,” Brand said laughing before disentangling himself. “This should be the end of our sorrows.”

“When will you be given command?”

“Soon,” Brand replied. “The Adalthing must convene first. I do not know Lord Elis’ intentions except that he does not intend to relinquish his position. I will aid him as I can, and in return he will secure this for me.”

“Well done, Brand,” Arndis said beaming with joy. “You have done what you promised to do.”

“Our fortunes are reversed,” Brand said smilingly. “I will rest easy tonight.”

~~~~

“Pardon me, milord, but there is a messenger here for you,” a servant told Jarl Isarn. Isenhart was seated around a table along with his brother, his youngest son, his cousin Athelbold, and other important members of the family. The discussion taking place was centred on the Adalthing.

“Well, bring me the message,” the jarl said irritably.

“Forgive me, but he was told to deliver it into your hands only and would not concede this point,” the servant said nervously.

“Fine, bring him in and tell him to be quick about it,” the jarl ordered. Soon after, the messenger appeared with a letter in hand.

“Directly from Lord Elis’ hand to yours, milord,” said Eolf, servant to the dragonlord. “My master expects me to return with a reply,” Eolf continued and walked to stand outside the hall.

All eyes were on the jarl as he broke the seal and unfolded the letter. Various expressions danced across his face, which none could interpret. “What does he write, Brother?” asked Athelstan, who was least afraid to disturb the jarl’s thoughts.

“Perhaps the answer to our prayers,” answered Isenhart. “He wishes to propose an alliance. Throw his support behind me as lord protector in return for being named dragonlord and retaining his position.”

“Does he write how many noblemen he brings with him?” asked Eumund.

“No, but he must have a few at least. Perhaps this is what is needed to sway the Thing in our favour,” said Athelbold, the jarl’s cousin.

“For a hefty price,” objected Athelstan. “We should not lightly promise the title of dragonlord to any man, especially to one not of our house.”

“He writes more,” muttered the jarl. “As a gesture of his support, he will have the Crown forfeit the sixty gold marks we owe in geld.”

“You could still have your vassals pay the geld,” Athelbold was quick to suggest. “They need not know it was forfeited. Not only do you save your own gold crowns, you gain fifty more. Fifty that can be used to buy the southern landgraves.”

“And,” the jarl continued as he read along, “he is prepared to give us the document promising us ownership of the Mint. Since it already has the alderman’s signature, we can sign it ourselves once we are lord protector and make it valid. We can even spite Vale and cancel the wedding.”

“Getting the alderman to sign that document must have taken skill,” Eumund remarked. “Had the king been alive, he would never have allowed it. We must admit Lord Elis brings many gifts. Especially if we are spared the humiliation of marrying one of ours to one of Vale.”

“I am still unsure,” Athelstan said conflicted. “I find it odd that he would expend such effort on an engagement between us and the House of Vale only to now suggest we cancel it.”

“It was obviously a ploy, Brother,” the jarl said gruffly. “He has demonstrated his ability to serve us, and a further chance to spite Vale is never to be turned down. Call the messenger back.” The last part was added to the servant, who complied. “Do you require an answer in writing?” asked the jarl of Elis’ servant.

Eolf shook his head. “My master said a mere yes or no would suffice.”

“Tell your master the answer is ‘yes’,” Isenhart said.

“Very well, milord,” Eolf said, bowing deeply before he disappeared.

“We have it,” the jarl said with a grin as he looked at his kinsmen. “We have it.”

~~~~

The jarl of Vale was in his study going through ledgers and matching numbers when his chamberlain entered. “Pardon me, milord, but there is a messenger here. He claims he has a message he will only place directly in your hands,” said Arion.

“How peculiar. Send him in, I could use a small pause, I suppose,” Valerian answered and poured something for himself to drink. Momentarily after, Eolf appeared and extended a letter in his hand.

As the jarl accepted it, Eolf gave him the accompanying spoken message. “From Lord Elis’ hand into yours, milord,” Eolf said. “He is expecting an immediate reply,” he continued, bowed low, and left the study. As Valerian opened the letter and began to read it, his brother Konstans entered.

“I was told you received a letter,” Konstans said.

“It is from the seneschal,” Valerian told him. “He wants to support us in exchange for keeping his position,” the jarl continued and gave the letter for Konstans to read. Moments after, they were joined by a young man also dressed in the colours of the House of Vale.

“You bade me come, Father?” he said to Konstans.

“Yes, Konstantine, I thought you should be present,” Konstans said. “If you are to be jarl one day, you should participate in discussions such as this.”

“Indeed, there is much you must learn, Nephew,” Jarl Valerian said to him, “since I am given only a daughter. What do you make of this letter?”

Konstans gave his son the letter from Elis. The young nobleman read it, but it left him with a confused expression. “It seems unclear to me. He wishes to be seneschal while you are lord protector, Uncle? But these documents he promises, I thought we would already gain the Mint. When Valerie marries the Isarn boy.”

“That was a ruse,” Konstans interrupted. “I had my doubts and now I am certain. Lord Elis never cared for the wedding. It was simply an excuse to show us his capabilities. That he is able to pressure the alderman into giving up the Mint proves his political skill.”

“But since the alderman has signed them, do we need Lord Elis? Or if we go through with the wedding, will he not be bound to sign them?” asked the young man.

Konstans shook his head. “The wedding will never take place either way. And if we decline, Lord Elis will destroy the documents. This is why he has kept them, why he has not signed them. They are a display of his skill, his ability to shape the political winds. A promise of what we will gain by allying with him.”

 “So what do we answer?” asked Valerian.

“We answer ‘yes’,” replied Konstans.

“Are you certain we wish to trust him?” asked the jarl.

“No. But let him believe we agree to his plans. If he thinks our interests are aligned, he will not work against us. Even if we should decide our interests are not aligned,” explained his brother.

“Call the messenger back,” the jarl told Arion, who had been silent during the exchange. The chamberlain did as ordered and returned with Eolf.

“Does Lord Elis require a written answer?”

“He said that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would suffice, milord.”

“Tell him ‘yes’,” Valerian bade the servant.

“As you say, milord,” Eolf said, bowed, and left, returning to bring Elis the answers to his messages.

~~~~

When Eolf was back at the Citadel, he found that a few people hopeful for an audience with the dragonlord were waiting in the wing. Among them was a portly figure with a golden chain as the symbol of his authority, revealing his status as alderman of the guilds. The responsibilities as leader of guilds were twofold. He was to ensure that the guilds and merchants could ply their trades and that gold and silver flowed into the king’s treasury. It varied how great an interest the kings of Adalrik took in the details of trade and commerce, however, and often such tasks were delegated to the dragonlord. In the end, most kings were more interested in how gold might be spent than earned. Thus, the alderman was familiar with the paths of the Citadel, and unlike others who were kept in uncertainty about an audience, the alderman was rarely kept waiting. Eolf went straight through the corridors and into his master’s study.

“Yes?” asked Elis, looking up as his servant entered.

“Both jarls agree to your proposal, milord,” Eolf said.

“Excellent,” the dragonlord smiled.

“Furthermore, Alderman Edwin is here to see you.”

“Send him in,” Elis said with a wave.

A moment later, the alderman made his entrance. “Milord,” Edwin said as he bowed deeply.

“What is it? I am occupied,” Elis replied, glancing down at the stacks of paper on his desk.

“Of course, milord, and I beg your pardon most humbly,” Edwin said, wiping a few pearls of sweat from his brow. “I have just come from a meeting with several prominent merchants of Middanhal.”

“This is something I need to know about?”

“I believe so, milord. They are concerned about the new tax on certain luxury goods,” Edwin explained. “Such are already expensive when our merchants buy them in Alcázar. Then there is the toll in Herbergja to pay, and further transport upriver, toll when they disembark in Adalrik, and –“

“Then they raise their prices,” Elis replied dismissively. “If people can afford luxury, they can afford to pay more.”

“Of course, milord, you are wise to see this,” Edwin conceded, wiping his brow again. “But they are also concerned about the tax on salt.”

“It is more than reasonable,” Elis brushed him off. “They pay a toll to bring the salt through Middanhal when they wish to sell it up north. They should also pay a tax when they sell it here in the city.”

“See that is the core of the matter,” Edwin said hesitantly, his fingers entwining themselves in the links of his golden chain. “Before it was an advantage for them to sell the salt in Middanhal and avoid the toll. With the new tax, they have more reason to continue further north, where it is scarcer and prices are higher.”

“Middanhal is the largest city in the realms,” Elis said dismissively. “With all the salt they mine in Hæthiod, some will always come here to sell it.”

“Certainly, milord, I cannot question that,” Edwin admitted. “I merely, humbly, suggest –”

“Enough,” exclaimed Elis. “Defeating the highlanders was not cheap, and now Vidrevi is trying to shirk its responsibilities. The kingdom needs coin, and I will not discuss this further.”

“Of course, milord,” Edwin said with a deep bow; yet although he had effectively been dismissed, he remained in the chamber. “There is one other, small matter, if you will permit it,” Edwin said anxiously, his hand grabbing tightly around the chain on his stomach.

“What is it,” sighed Elis.

“The documents you had me sign. For Jarl Isarn and Jarl Vale.”

“What of them?” Elis said brusquely.

“Should someone learn that I signed not only one, but two documents surrendering control of the Mint…” Edwin swallowed, not finishing the sentence.

“Well, are you fool enough to tell anyone?”

“Of course not, milord!” Edwin hastened to say. “But suppose one jarl speaks to the other, and they realise they have both been given the same promise?”

“That will not happen,” Elis promised him. “They hate each other, and they both believe the other person is being deceived. They understand why it must be kept secret even if they misunderstand the reason.”

“Very well, milord,” Edwin said hesitantly. “It is merely that any interference in the Mint’s work or attempts to change the balance between silver and gold,” the alderman spoke haltingly, “would severely disrupt trade throughout the realm, indeed all the realms.”

“There will be no interference nor disruptions,” Elis said definitively. “Will the word of the dragonlord suffice for you?” he asked, keeping his eyes locked on Edwin.

“Of course, milord. I will take my leave with your assurances, milord,” Edwin said with a bow.

Leaving through the corridors, the alderman turned and walked through another hallway, which ran parallel with the dragonlord’s quarters. Finally, he opened the door to a small room, which was used as a linen closet. Inside stood a slender figure wearing a hood. When Edwin opened the door, he found that the hooded person had been keeping an eye glued to a small spy hole in the wall. “Master Holwine,” Edwin whispered.

A little startled by the alderman, Holwine recovered quickly. “Oh, it is you.”

“Are you satisfied?” asked Edwin, wiping his brow with his now rather wet sleeve.

“The jarl will be very pleased to hear this,” said the servant. “This is rather interesting,” Holwine continued, pointing towards the spy hole that let anybody observe the dragonlord in his private chamber. “Did you spy on my master when he was dragonlord?”

“Never!” Edwin said quickly while Holwine stepped out of the closet and closed the door.

“Yet you knew about it,” Holwine said with a sly smile.

“It was the old king, never me! When his favour towards the jarl began to lessen,” Edwin said, nervously skirting around the subject of Theodoric’s fall from grace at court. “The king had it made this way by members of the guild of masons,” Edwin explained, licking his lips.

“And the masons told you,” Holwine completed.

“We protect each other and those who help us,” said Edwin. “Speaking of help…?”

“My master will help you as stated,” Holwine promised. The servant left on light footsteps, gone within moments; the alderman glanced from side to side before walking away with heavier footfall.

~~~~

Some hours after the alderman’s meeting with the dragonlord, Holwine returned to the jarl of Theodstan’s private quarters, where Theodoric sat alone. “Yes?” he said questioningly.

“Took a long time, but I finally had a chance to get in and rummage about a bit. That Lord Elis has quite some wheels turning, webs spinning.”

“Yes, yes, I am sure it was an effort and you deserve praise. Now tell me if it is true,” Theodoric said impatiently.

“It is,” Holwine said briefly before elaborating. “He kept them in his strongbox, which I might add was very difficult to pry open and lock again, hiding my little foray into his private papers.”

“But you saw them with your own eyes?”

“I did,” Holwine confirmed. “Documents for Vale and for Isarn, promising each of them control of the Mint.”

“A dangerous game he plays,” Theodoric contemplated. “But so very clever. Both the jarls would sell their mothers for a chance to ruin their rival’s wealth. Add to this that Elis controls Ingmond and can decide the outcome of the Adalthing,” the jarl considered. “He has Valerian and Isenhart in his hand.”

“Ill news for your design to have Sir Reynold chosen,” Holwine claimed.

“On the contrary,” Theodoric smiled. “This indicates that Elis has not decided whom to support. Why should he, he has ample time to weigh their offers. And in his hesitation lies my opportunity.”

“I could go back,” Holwine offered, “take the documents with me. You will have proof to show the other jarls that Elis is untrustworthy.”

Theodoric shook his head. “That might frighten Elis and prompt him to take some action I cannot foresee. I need him to be cautious and give me time to enact my own plans.”

“So you have conceived a plan, milord?” Holwine said with gleaming eyes.

“I think I have,” Theodoric said with a self-satisfied smile.

Leaving his quarters, Theodoric passed through the corridors of the Citadel until he approached the royal quarters. The kingthanes glanced at him as he passed near but did not hinder or question the passage of a jarl. Reaching the library tower, Theodoric entered without knocking. From the adjacent hall came voices, and then Quill emerged. “My lord jarl,” the scribe said, inclining his head. “If I had known you desired to meet, we could have come to you.” Behind Quill, Godfrey appeared.

“No, I enjoy this tower,” Theodoric said, glancing around. “Remote, none to overhear our conversation.”

“Have you made your enquiries?” Godfrey asked.

“I have,” Theodoric smiled. “I may have devised a way.”

“There is always a way,” Godfrey smiled.

“May I suggest we speak in here,” Quill said, gesturing towards the scriptorium, where he and Godfrey had just been. Once inside, he spoke again. “We are eager to listen, my lord.”

“Good, because there have been some interesting developments,” Theodoric said as his eyes fell upon a chessboard. He grabbed the black king and the white king. “I assumed the Adalthing would be split between Valerian and Isenhart,” he said, gesturing with a king as he spoke each name. Then he placed the kings back on the chessboard, where they were surrounded by their pawns and pieces.

“But,” Theodoric continued and grabbed a seal that Quill used for his letters, “there is a third faction. Ingmond is not bought by either of the jarls. In fact, he is allied with Elis, our dragonlord,” Theodoric explained, placing the seal between the white and black pieces as a symbol of the unaligned Elis. Neither Quill nor Godfrey spoke but simply listened and watched.

“Elis has been courting both Valerian and Isenhart. The one he decides to support is near certain to have the majority. However,” Theodoric added, “there is a chance of gaining the majority without Elis and Ingmond. If Valerian and I join together with some of the landgraves on our side as well, we may sway the Adalthing in favour of Sir Reynold.”

“And do you believe Vale can be persuaded to lend his voice to Sir Reynold?” asked Godfrey.

“Not at first,” Theodoric said. “I suspect he is making deals with Elis and hopes to secure the election for himself. Here is the tipping point. There will be three countings of voices in the Adalthing for an election like this, is that not so?” the jarl asked of Quill, who was keeper of the law.

“Yes,” Quill nodded. “As when the Adalthing acknowledges a new heir to the realm. Up to three countings of the day, should the matter not be resolved by the first or second.”

“Good,” Theodoric said. “My assumption is that Elis will not act at the first counting, perhaps not even by the second. Too much is uncertain,” the jarl explained. “None will know exactly how many lend their voices to Valerian and how many to Isenhart. The first counting allows those undecided, like Elis, to scout the support of each jarl and consider who is most likely to secure a majority.”

“And once Lord Elis knows the relative support of each jarl, he can decide whom to favour, who will have a majority with his and Jarl Ingmond’s support,” Quill continued.

“Precisely,” the jarl of Theodstan confirmed. “However, Elis is playing a dangerous game. He is making promises to both jarls that he cannot keep,” Theodoric continued, touching both kings of the chessboard with his fingertips.

“You predict that Vale will abandon his hope in Elis and join with you instead,” Godfrey guessed.

“Exactly,” Theodoric nodded. “Isenhart is different. He will gladly take what risks he must as long as he thinks he can attain his goal. Valerian is far more cautious. He only makes deals where he is certain to profit.”

“And you believe that he will consider you the safer deal?” Godfrey asked.

“I do. I have an offer in mind for Valerian if he aids me in making Reynold lord protector. When Valerian sees after the first counting that Elis is undeclared, once I tell him that Elis along with Ingmond might support Isenhart…” For a moment, Theodoric’s voice trailed off. “Rather than risk ending up with nothing, I believe Valerian will switch allegiance to my cause. Thus I will secure the election without Elis, without Ingmond, and we will have our lord protector.”

“A complicated plan,” Quill said.

“Political affairs are complicated,” Theodoric responded with a shrug. “I see no other way.”

“Then this is how it must be,” Godfrey consented.

“I have preparations to make,” Theodoric said, moving away and getting ready to leave. “Gods willing, Reynold will be lord protector in a few days.”

“I am sure they are,” Godfrey smiled as if he had made a jest.

~~~~

Outside Middanhal, scattered camps of tents and primitive shelters had sprung up, both to the north and to the south. There were too many travellers for the city to comfortably hold, and most elected to live outside until the actual day of the feast. This would also let them save the toll on entry since no gate tolls were collected on that day. Thus to many of the pilgrims, who had already spent days on the road and slept in the wild, one more night outside meant nothing. Those who already had arrangements, wished to try their luck, or were simply tired of sleeping on the ground, contributed to the steady stream of travellers entering the city. The gates were closed at nightfall, but so close to the solstice, nightfall happened late.

It was near the tolling of the last evening bell when another wanderer walked through the southern gate. This happened slowly, for movement congested at the gate from the collection of toll. In one hand, he had a travel bag; in the other, he had a curved staff for a bow that marked him as an archer and served to help him keep his balance against the current of the crowd. As he walked into the shadow of the gatehouse, he glanced up and saw the great arch of stone above him. Then he had to look ahead as a guard spoke to him.

“One silver mark to enter the city,” the guard said tonelessly. A clerk sat by a desk and made markings whenever silver was deposited in the chest by his side, keeping the toll collectors honest.

The archer dug out a silver piece and gave it to the guard. “Any place where I might find a room?” he asked the nearest guard, who snorted in reply.

“The day before solstice? Don’t waste my time,” the guard responded, pulling the archer forward by gripping his arm. “Keep moving,” he added and gave the man a push in the back.

Planting his staff in the ground for support, the archer regained his balance and threw an angry glare back. However, the guard had already turned around and was herding the next travellers forward. Standing still also meant that other people were soon streaming past him, and so the archer opted to move to the side of the Arnsweg, pressing himself against the houses.

He glanced around. Ahead and up the Arnsweg was the great stone bridge, which marked the boundary between Lowtown and the rest of the city. Surrounding him on both sides of the street, Lowtown itself spread out like a beehive. Deciding not to cross the road, the archer turned and walked further into Lowtown on his side of the street.

The smaller streets and crooked alleys meant that Lowtown felt as crowded as the Arnsweg. Most people walked quickly, knowing their destination, but the archer had to move more slowly as he investigated his surroundings. Because of this, people were constantly pushing into him; at times in response to this, he retreated to stand up against the buildings and get a better look. The first inns and hostels had numerous people loitering about, and he continued quickly. Going deeper into Lowtown, movements on the street became less frequent. He was eyed with suspicion now and then but otherwise left alone until he saw a sign outside a house. The sign showed a tankard of ale, marking it as a tavern. The archer went inside, taking off his cap as the burly tavern keeper greeted him through the noise of the other patrons.

“Enter and be welcome,” the barkeep said in a jolly voice, and the archer nodded in response.

“Thanks, much appreciated.”

“Don’t speak, let me guess. From Hæthiod, aye? With that big bow of yours.”

“That’s right.”

“And you’re here for the competition tomorrow, I bet.”

“Also right.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing you shoot,” the tavern keeper said cheerfully. “Now what can I do for you?”

“Might you have a place for me to sleep? I could use somewhere dry.”

The host scratched himself behind the ear. “Well, I don’t normally rent out rooms, this place is mostly just for eating and drinking. Suppose I could let you sleep in the stables if you don’t mind there might be rats.”

“That would be fine as long as it won’t get wet if there’s rain,” answered the archer.

“Good, good then. That’ll be one silver to spend the night here, and I’ll give you something to eat as well.”

“Thanks. Could you bring it to me in the stables? I would prefer the quiet,” the archer said, gesturing to the rowdy people drinking and laughing in the common room.

“Certainly,” the tavern keeper said amicably. “If you go through that door there, you’ll be in a small courtyard. Across is the door to the stable,” he said with a smile. The archer thanked him and followed his instructions after fishing out a piece of silver as payment.

The stable was little more than a few booths containing a cow and a sheep, but there was plenty of hay in one of the corners. The archer sat down in the haystack, placing his bow staff next to him, and opened his travel bag. He pulled out a small pouch and emptied its content into his other hand. A small string, neatly tied together, fell out. He untied it and examined it closely. As he was doing this, he heard a rustle and then the door opening. A maid appeared with a bowl containing a stew. “Here you are,” she said, handing him the bowl and a wooden spoon.

“Thank you,” he said, placing the bowl on the ground before he tied the string together.

“What are you doing?” she asked puzzled.

“I have to be sure the string isn’t frayed,” he told her as he put it away. “It might make the shot go awry if the string is weak somewhere.”

“I never knew,” the maid said with a smile. “Well, I’ll let you eat,” she added and left.

The archer had another purpose first, though, as he pulled out a small bottle and a rag from his bag. He opened the bottle, pouring some of its content onto the rag, and applied the oil onto his bow staff until it glistened dark brown. When he was satisfied, he took another rag and removed any superfluous oil with that; finally, he carefully placed the staff against the wall. Only when his preparations were done did he begin to eat the cooling stew. When had finished it, he set the bowl aside and leaned back into the haystack, positioning the bag so that his legs were above it, keeping it in place. Then he fell asleep to get what rest might be possible before the day of solstice began.

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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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