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Midsummer Sun

Middanhal

On the morning of the longest day, the first bell had not yet tolled when Quill heard a knock on the door to his library. As he opened, he found a kitchen girl outside holding a bowl of gruel. “Pardon me, Master Quill, but I know you like to take your meals here. And since your apprentice is gone, I thought I would bring it to you,” she said.

“You may place it there,” Quill said, opening the door fully and pointing to a small table nearby, where he normally ate with Egil. The girl entered, placed the bowl on the table, and glanced around. “Something that strikes your curiosity?” Quill asked while taking a seat.

“I’ve never been in the library before,” she told him.

“I never heard of a kitchen servant with an interest in books before,” Quill remarked as he began to eat his morning meal.

“Well, we can’t read, so we wouldn’t know what to do with them either,” she admitted. She stood hovering near the doorway but did not leave.

“Perhaps you wish to tell me why you bothered to race up here?”

“Oh, I didn’t want the others to overhear if I waited for you in the kitchen. And Cook wouldn’t like me disturbing a person of importance.”

“Well, that is too late now, so you may as well proceed.”

“It’s just…” she began, biting her lip. “I barely saw Egil before he left. I don’t know what he’s doing, or when he’ll be back. Will he be back?”

“You’re the kitchen girl I’ve seen him with,” Quill said in realisation. “I forgot how you looked. What is your name?”

“Kate, Master Quill,” she said and made a small bow, which made Quill chuckle.

“Well, I cannot tell you when Egil will return. It will be some weeks at least.”

“Will he be fine?”

“I have every reason to believe so.”

“Thank you, Master Quill,” she said with a relieved smile.

“Kate,” Quill said before she could leave. “Would you like to be able to read?”

“I don’t know, master. What would I ever need it for?”

“I cannot say. But knowledge and especially the ability to acquire knowledge is always useful.” Seeing that she seemed to waver, he added, “and I imagine it would impress Egil. He will not meet another servant girl who can read.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Tonight, between the first and last of the evening bells when your duties are done. Make sure you wash your hands until they are completely clean, and dry them thoroughly. Brush your hair free of any filth. Do you have other clothes than what you use for work?”

“I have a dress for when I go to the Temple,” Kate informed him.

“Wear that,” Quill nodded, “and we will begin tonight.”

~~~~

On the day of summer solstice, the Temple square was transformed. The stalls and vendors had been cleared out, and a temporary fence was erected to keep the spectators back. Inside the empty square, various wooden structures were being quickly assembled by skilled workers. They were employed by the guilds, who for the most part were responsible for the games and tournaments held.

Soon there were arenas, targets, and ranges built for each of the contests to be held. While commoners had to stand or find room on one of the rooftops that overlooked the square, tribunes had been raised on the west end of the square so that the Temple was at the left hand. The tribunes were sharply divided according to rank with the tallest, centre-most seats reserved for the prince and those closest to him. The next rows of seats were intended for the jarls and their retinue, and then came those for the landgraves and margraves below them. If any seats were left, those with the standing of beorn might claim those or else be content with standing up.

Apart from the workmen hurrying about to set everything up, there were also several clerks and scribes trying to organise the events. The archer who had arrived yesterday got in line and waited until he reached their desks. “I wish to participate in the archery contest,” he said.

“No surprise,” the clerk said with a glance at the bow staff in the archer’s hand. “Name?”

“Nicholas from Tothmor,” the archer told him.

“No surprise either, you’re the tenth archer from Hæthiod today. Twenty-four silver to enter.”

“That’s robbery,” Nicholas protested. “How can it be that much just to compete? If I don’t win, I’ve lost twenty-four silver!”

“Then don’t enter if you don’t think you can win. Twenty-four eagles or let the next man take your spot,” the clerk said unforgiving.

“Fine,” Nicholas conceded, digging his money pouch out of his travelling bag. He opened it up and began to slowly count twenty-four pieces with the eagle imprinted on one side.

“Best of luck to you,” the scribe said in an unconvincing tone as he put the money away and jotted down Nicholas’ name.

The archery competition and the grand fight were open to all who wished to compete, commoners and nobles alike. The joust was only for knights and noblemen, however. So that they might avoid the crowds of others seeking to enter the tournament, and since many of them were only interested in the joust, a scribe was dedicated to accepting only their admission. Two knights moved towards this particular clerk, both of them already wearing their armour and with their helmets in hand.

“Sir Richard of Alwood to enter the joust,” the older knight said, throwing a pouch of coins down on the desk that threatened to spill the scribe’s ink well. He rushed to steady it and sent an angry glare up but dared not speak. Instead, he merely wrote down the knight’s name while Richard laughed. After him came his former squire.

“Sir Eumund of Isarn, entering the joust and the grand fight,” the young nobleman said, paying the entrance fee with more careful motions.

“Both?” Richard said with raised eyebrows. “Well, I admire your spirit even if I suspect you will taste the dirt before the day is over.”

“Be careful about your predictions that they do not turn on yourself,” Eumund replied.

“Hardly,” Richard laughed again. “Though maybe you will have a chance in the grand fight since I am absent. But do not complain that your back hurts when I knock you from your horse in the joust.”

 “Riding that old nag that you do, I will be surprised if it does not collapse the moment you mount it,” Eumund retorted.

“Hah, my old nag will be fresh long after you have lost your wind. But I better check the stable boys are treating her well,” Richard replied, and the two parted with Richard returning to the Citadel and Eumund walking towards the tribunes.

~~~~

With the tribunes and fences raised, people slowly began to filter towards them. The main tribune for the prince and his following was empty, of course, since it was reserved and they would arrive last. However, with the morning bell having sounded a while ago, even the jarls and their houses were taking seats. In past years, this had often been a source of trouble. Whilst Ingmond had not yet arrived and Theodstan brought only his sister along with a few servants and guards, both Isarn and Vale came with numerous relatives and attendants; each sought to claim as much area as possible.

A sort of compromise had developed over the years with Isarn taking the northern seats and Vale taking the southern, but still there were potential brawls waiting to happen as they had done on the steps of the Temple a few days ago. Both groups sent scowls towards any near them who wore the red colour with the wrong companion. So red and black was concentrated at the one end, red and gold at the other.

The only exception was a young man with a red and black cloak, who sat by a young woman dressed in red and gold. They sat low on the tribunes, near the middle and away from either of their respective families. “Are you especially – interested – in seeing any of the games, Lady Valerie?” asked Isenwald.

“Not as such,” she replied. “I find them all interesting. Though I suppose I am always amazed by how the archers are able to place their arrows so perfectly at such a distance. Whenever I attempt archery, I can barely hit the target.”

“I can relate,” Isenwald said. “Being trained at swordplay – is not heartening when your brother – is Eumund and your uncle – is Athelstan.”

“Yes, my father speaks with respect of your uncle. Will he participate in the tournament now that he has returned?” Valerie asked.

“I – do not – think so, he never – did before,” he told her. “But Eumund will be – in both the joust and the grand fight.”

“We will cheer for him,” Valerie said.

“That will make him glad. He hopes to – do well and make – our father proud.”

“Your father is fortunate to have two such fine sons. My father would be happy, I think, with just one,” Valerie said with a wry smile.

“I – do not think any number – of sons would make my father happy,” Isenwald speculated. “He has – other wishes. But – I am very happy your father has a daughter.”

“You will make me blush,” Valerie said, looking downwards. “I confess your letters at times have similar effect.”

“I am glad to hear – it,” Isenwald replied, himself staring upwards into the sky. “I – did fear that perhaps you wrote to me – only from courtesy and nothing more.”

“Far from it,” Valerie said quietly. “Unless that is your cause for writing to me?” she asked suddenly, looking at him.

“Not at all,” he hastened to say. “No, your kindness shines through – in every word. It gives me reason to smile.”

“I have never before heard that kindness was a virtue extolled by poets. If it can even be called that.”

“Perhaps not,” Isenwald granted. “But – it seems rare to me, and – it makes you seem all the more precious,” he said, once more looking away. Valerie did not reply as she too was busy looking in another direction. After a few moments, one hand between them managed to search its way to its counterpart, and they locked fingers.

Eumund moved through the spectators until he reached his own family. Out on the square, they were still setting up for the archery contest, which was the first of the three games to be held. “Eumund!” his father greeted him. “Are you prepared?”

“I believe so,” the young man said solemnly. “I have trained all I could.”

“I do not doubt it. You will bring glory to our house,” Isenhart said. “Much needed since your uncle will not involve himself.”

“These tournaments are for the young hotspurs to prove themselves,” Athelstan said mildly. “Or for those who might need the prize money,” he added as his gaze fell on a knight coming from the same direction as Eumund. “Well met, Sir William,” Athelstan spoke up in greeting to the knight. He was some thirty years of age and clad for battle as Eumund was. “I did not know you were in Middanhal. Has the tournament lured you here?”

“It does attract me, Sir Athelstan, though I was already in the city,” William said and inclined his head. “My greetings, my lord,” he added, directed at the jarl.

“Greetings.” The jarl’s voice was disinterested as he turned his attention back towards the square.

“This is my nephew, Eumund,” Athelstan introduced. “You will face him in the tournament.”

“I look forward to it. If you will pardon me, I must make my preparations. They will not let me fight with my own blunted sword, so I must spend some time acquainting myself with the one they will provide.”

“Of course, Sir William. Best of fortunes to you,” Athelstan replied as the knight took his leave. “Keep an eye out for him,” Athelstan warned his nephew. “That is none other than Sir William of Tothmor.”

“The one they call ‘the Unyielding’?” Eumund said surprised. “That is him? Who fought by your side in the highlands?”

“The same,” Athelstan nodded. “He was scarcely older than you are now yet old enough to make his name. As you may do today,” he added smiling, clapping his nephew on the shoulder.

“I need to choose one of my cousins to be my sergeant for the joust,” Eumund said, glancing around. “The Order has not yet given me one.” As his eyes fell on his brother and Valerie, they narrowed. “Father, have you not told Isenwald that he is not to marry the daughter of Vale after all?”

Isenhart looked up at where his oldest son sat and then back at the square. “I may have forgotten,” he muttered. “It is no matter. Let Vale be unsuspecting until the Adalthing.”

“As you say,” Eumund acquiesced with a reluctant voice. “Well, I must make my preparations. Look for me in the joust,” he said and moved forward through the stands.

While Eumund evaluated which of his cousins he liked the least and would draft as his sergeant, Brand and Arndis approached the tribunes from the north. “I have never watched the tournament from here before,” Arndis said as they made their way through the spectators and stepped onto the tribunes.

“Then it is about time,” Brand said. “Come, we will find Sir Athelstan and introduce you. I am eager you should meet.”

Before they could proceed further, however, a youth in red and black cloak stood up and blocked their path. “This place is not for you. Go,” he said and threw his head towards the stands, “take yourselves hither.”

Brand’s eyes narrowed in contempt. “Out of my way.”

Before the red-cloaked nobleman could reply, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. “Be silent, you fool,” Eumund told his kinsman. “That is Athelstan’s squire. Now go and groom my horse. You will squire for me today,” he spoke, pushing his cousin in the back to move him forward.

“I will miss the matches,” the cousin grumbled, but another stern look from Eumund sent the boy on his way.

“Well met, Eumund,” Brand said casually. Eumund did not reply; he merely sent Brand and his sister a look before he too left the tribunes.

“That seemed a bit odd,” Arndis remarked.

“I saved Eumund from drowning in the river when we were pages. He cannot quite forgive me that I placed him in the awkward position of being indebted to me,” Brand explained, and then he spoke again in a cheerful voice. “Ah, here he is!”

Athelstan, having spotted them, had moved through his relatives and now clasped Brand’s arm. “Glad you are here, Brand,” the knight said. “And this delicate beauty must be the lady Arndis,” he added, bowing deeply before her and making her blush. Athelstan turned and gestured for his kinsfolk to move aside and let him and the Arnling siblings be seated. “Lady Arndis, has any of the knights for today been blessed with your favour?” asked Athelstan.

“Oh no,” she said shyly. “I have not – no, that is not the case.”

“That will soon change,” Athelstan said confidently. “I hear your brother is introducing you at court.”

“He has,” Arndis confirmed with a look at Brand. “It has been a welcome change from our house.”

“I can imagine. I was sorry to hear about your mother,” Athelstan said sympathetically. “If I had known, we would have made our return with greater haste.”

“It was woven by the Fates,” Brand spoke in a casual tone. “We are back now and looking forward.”

“You should have heard this one while we were in Alcázar,” Athelstan said genially. “Always asking questions, always making plans.”

“It must have been an adventure to journey so far, to a place so different,” Arndis said.

“It was,” Athelstan replied. “They have many strange customs and eat fruits and bread we do not have here. They allow their women certain freedoms yet veil them to keep them shielded from others. But they have poets that may rival our skalds and old sagas, and there is honour among their warriors. I suppose it is easy to see the differences between them and us and overlook the similarities.”

“I should wish to hear their poets one day,” Arndis said.

“Perhaps we can invite one to court,” Brand suggested. “With so much trade between Adalmearc and their city, it does not sound so far-fetched.”

“Perhaps,” Athelstan said more doubtfully. “If relations continue to be well between us and them.”

Their next words drowned in cheers and applause; preparations for the first game had ended, and now the contestants entered. Targets had been placed at the far end of the square, opposite the Temple, and now the finest archers in the land stepped out into the open. They had come from all over Adalrik and some from the realms beyond. Vidrevi with its vast forests and hunting grounds spawned many marksmen. Thusund had numerous isles where the islanders shot small birds in flight, and the kingdom was known for the skill of its archers as well. Hæthiod in addition was renowned for its longbowmen, who were in demand as guards everywhere. Scores of these shooters from all over the realms now lined up and prepared to compete for the prize.

~~~~

Nicholas blinked a few times as he looked east towards where the sun was slowly climbing up the horizon, though it was still mostly covered by the Weolcan Mountains. He glanced around and saw banners flying tall, which told him the direction of the wind and its force. On either side of him continued the line of archers, and behind them were many more. Since there was no limit as to how many might enter the contest, they were too many to compete at once. There were fifteen targets at the other end, and fifteen archers stepped forward on the marked line. Only the five best might proceed from this initial sorting of who had skill and who had simply wasted their silver.

Overseers from the guilds stood on either side of the line to watch that everything went according to fairness and that nobody interfered with the archers and their shots. Likewise, their counterparts stood at the opposite end of the square to judge once the arrows had landed; for now, they kept a wide berth to the targets, just in case. The overseers gave signal to prepare. Earlier, Nicholas had strung his bow; now he pulled out a band of arrows from his travel bag that were wrapped in thick wool to protect them from water. He loosened the band and took out one arrow, placing the rest on top of the sack after he had checked the fletching and that the feathers were in prime condition.

Returning to the line, Nicholas placed the arrow on the bowstring and drew it back a few times, testing its strength and placement. He raised the bow, withdrew the string entirely, and slowly loosened it again. He repeated this manoeuvre a few times, raising the bow higher up in judgement of the arc that the arrow would take to its target. Finally came another signal to be ready to loosen arrows. Nicholas took deep breaths and exhaled slowly. He placed one finger above the arrow, two below, and pulled the bowstring back until the fingertips on his right hand touched the corner of his mouth. He raised the bow in calculation of the angle and waited, continuing his breathing rhythm.

“Release!” yelled an overseer. Nicholas waited until he exhaled again and then released the bowstring. As the arrow flew upwards into the sky, it was out of sight for a moment before it descended and impaled itself against its target. It was a good shot, though from this distance he could not judge his precision compared to the other archers. A clerk quickly moved down the line, jotting down their names and position in the line.

“Nicholas from Tothmor,” he said absentmindedly as the clerk made a few marks. Then he retreated to allow the next group of archers to step forward to the line.

They continued in this manner and weeded out most of the contestants. The overseers quickly mentioned the names of those who continued to the second round. Nicholas waited with bated breath until he heard his name announced. Then he checked his bowstring and picked out another arrow. Again, he let his finger cautiously run over the feathers and felt them bend slightly to his touch. Satisfied, he returned to the line when second round began. He nocked the arrow and drew the bowstring. Waited until the order came to release, exhaled, and let go of the bowstring. Felt the roar of the crowd in his ears. Gave his name to the scribe keeping record and stepped back.

This continued shot after shot with the targets being moved further back after the first few rounds. Arrow after arrow until only three archers were left, Nicholas among them. Another was a native of Adalrik from the northern forest borders, and the third was a brute of a man from Thusund. The reason for why the field was narrowed to exactly three became apparent when an apprentice from the artisans’ guild came with three jars. Each held a different colour, blue, green, and yellow. The archers were told to take out two arrows. Then the shaft of both arrows for each archer was brushed casually with one colour so each of them had their own hue. One arrow they stuck down between the paved stones of the square; the other arrow they all placed on the bowstring.

“First to hit the rabbit wins. No arrows until the flag is waved,” said one of the clerks in charge of the competition. Nicholas drew back the bowstring and held it ready. In the other end of the square, more than two hundred yards away, a rabbit was released. Dogs were kept nearby and barked loudly, frightening it into a sprint away from the crowds and out into the open square. The flag was waved to signal the archers.

Nicholas’ arm was barely kept still. Drawing his bow required tremendous strength, and while archery training also built up strength, he would normally release the string as soon as it was drawn back. The effort to hold it drawn was on the verge of making his arm tremble. He struggled to maintain a firm grip and narrowed his eyes to spot a small ball of white running across the square. Next to him, he heard one of the other archers shoot, but he kept steady and the string pulled back. Only when a lull in the wind could be felt did he release his arrow. Immediately afterwards he heard the third archer shoot his arrow as well.

A flag waved to signal the rabbit had been hit. There was no need to start anew. An overseer moved forward and examined the killing arrow. “Green!” he yelled across the square while all the crowds were silent. Nicholas dove down to grab the arrow in front of him, staring at the colour of the shaft as he pulled it up. Then a smile broke out across his face and he lifted the arrow into the sky, stepping forward in front of the other archers. Applause erupted like thunder and he raised his other hand holding the longbow in triumph.

The guildsmen ushered him towards the tribunes where the prince and his retinue were seated. While the rest of the nobles merely sat on benches and had to rely on good weather, actual tall chairs were built with a canopy above for the prince, his mother, and the dragonlord.

“A fine shot,” Elis said. “The realm is proud to have an archer of your mettle to grace our competition.”

“Thank you, milord,” Nicholas said bowing deeply.

“Sigmund,” his mother whispered, giving him a little push.

The young prince cleared his throat and spoke. “Well done, Nicholas from Tothmor. I name you champion of the bow. This purse is yours in celebration of your victory.” A servant placed a heavy pouch of silver in Nicholas’ hand. “This figurine is that all may see and remember you are the finest archer in the land,” the prince added, and a small statuette carved in ivory was then given to Nicholas as well, directly from the prince’s hand into Nicholas’. It was exquisitely formed to show an archer about to shoot an arrow.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Nicholas said, bowing deeply again, before the overseers ushered him away. The loud roars of emotion and applause seemed to fade as it became clear that the archery contest was over. The workmen began preparing for the joust, leading to a pause in the games, and people’s attention dispersed in every direction.

~~~~

While the guild labourers dismantled the archery targets and put up the fences for the joust, people began to move about. Peddlers sold wineskins, and others retired to nearby taverns for ale; meanwhile, the knights and their squires or sergeants brought their horses to the square and began to make ready as well. While the grand fight was the highlight of the games, there was plenty of excitement for the joust, and people were soon eagerly taking and making wagers.

“Whom do you favour in the joust, Sir Athelstan?” asked Arndis.

“Sir Richard of Alwood has won it before. They called him ‘Hotspur’ in his youth for more than one reason,” said the knight smiling.

“You do not trust in your nephew’s chances?” she continued.

“He is strong in the saddle,” Athelstan admitted. “But he has not yet won his spurs on the field, so to say.”

“I was told that Sir Philip of Plenmont was here as well from Korndale with one of those great chargers they breed in the South,” Brand added to the conversation.

“I have not seen him joust,” Athelstan said. “But his reputation precedes him indeed.”

“We shall cheer for your kinsman regardless,” Arndis promised. “If Sir Eumund is like his uncle, he is sure to win.”

“You are too kind, dear lady,” Athelstan said. “I have a feeling my squire exaggerates my abilities.”

“I say only the truth, Sir Athelstan,” Brand claimed.

“My brother has told me that you are the best commander in all of Adalmearc,” Arndis said. “With greater honour than any other knight.”

“Is that all? Here I feared he might have made me seem boastful,” Athelstan laughed. “Truth of the matter is that I have only held command in one war. As for my honour, such is for others to recognise.”

“He is also quite the silver tongue,” Brand added, making Athelstan laugh again.

“Nothing compared to your brother, though,” Athelstan claimed. “He had all the courtiers in Alcázar charmed. One of the children, a daughter of the Kabir no less, would follow him everywhere.”

“They were merely interested in somebody so foreign to them,” Brand shrugged. “You will notice I have no following here.”

“I am sure that will come once you earn your spurs,” Athelstan smiled. “If you will pardon me though. I better see Eumund before the joust begins, just to make sure he is prepared.”

Since the square was already packed with people and the structures necessary for the tournaments, there was no room for all the knights, their attendants and horses while they prepared for the joust. Hence, Athelstan had to leave the centre of the city and walk to the Citadel where the southern courtyard bristled with activity. Hundreds of knights and noblemen were competing, and all of them were now getting ready. Their horses were being tended to and saddled, and all of them inspected their armour, shield, and helmet.

“Have you checked your stirrups?” Athelstan said as he found his nephew.

“Of course, Uncle,” Eumund answered. “They are as they should be.”

“You may find it different to ride today when it is not practice on an open field, but instead you ride in an enclosure surrounded by roaring crowds,” Athelstan warned him.

“I will be fine, Uncle. I have trained to perfection.”

“I know you have. You are the pride of the House of Isarn.”

“I hope to be,” Eumund said earnestly. “Tighten the saddle strap,” he said to his cousin, who was acting as his sergeant.

“I would ask something of you. I am seated next to my squire and his sister. I would have you ask the lady for her favour.”

Eumund frowned. “What for? Neither she nor her brother are anything to me.”

“But he is to me. Do not do it for her sake or his, but for mine. I think highly of him in the same manner I think of you or your brother.”

“As you wish, Uncle,” Eumund muttered; then he put his helmet on and mounted his horse.

Along with many others, Athelstan returned to the tribunes and the stands as preparations for the joust approached completion. A thick layer of clay and dirt had been placed where the horses would ride to spare their feet and lessen the chance of injury. Several rows of fences had been erected in the centre of the square; along these barriers, the knights and noblemen would ride as they jousted. Ten rows all in all to allow twenty contestants to ride at the same time.

As the riders began to enter the square, excitement and tension rose among the audience. The overseers hurried to organise the knights and noblemen, make sure they kept back and moved to their correct position, but some simply rode out onto the square and greeted the crowds, who cheered in return. Some wore the colours of noble houses and rode towards where their kinsfolk sat, while others were foreigners and sought the favour of the common people. Eumund was one who rode out onto the square and towards the tribune where many of the House of Isarn were seated.

 “Your favour, my lady, if you would grant it,” Eumund asked, directed at Arndis. She sat taken aback, and for a moment nothing happened. Then she rose flustered and moved down to the outer fence, which separated the spectators from the contestants. She pulled her scarf from around her neck, and as Eumund bent low from atop his horse, Arndis tied it around his arm. “My thanks,” Eumund said gruffly.

“You are welcome, sir knight,” she replied and hurried back to take her seat next to her brother. There were some odd looks and stares from the many relatives of the House of Isarn, who surrounded them in their red cloaks. More than one was female and might as well have been chosen by Eumund to honour with his victories, but it was considered most discourteous to interfere when a warrior asked a lady for her favour. Hence, none did more than simply stare, and Eumund rode undisturbed to the other end of the square to take his place for the first round of jousts.

With hundreds having entered the competition, there were going to be several rounds, much like with the archery contest. First, twenty riders took up position, ten at each end of the jousting fences. A herald stepped out in front of the tribunes and raised his hands to command silence. It did not happen instantly, but the clamour of the crowd died down sufficiently that the herald might speak.

He announced the names of all twenty knights and noblemen in the first joust and then gave a signal. A silver horn was blown, and twenty men on mounts charged forward against their designated opponents. Dust enveloped the combatants kicked up by the hooves of their horses. Twenty lances crashed against twenty shields, and for a moment, everybody in the audience was breathless. A terrible noise came as the riders clashed, followed by roars rising from the crowds as lances splintered and several of the contestants were unhorsed.

The handful of men so unlucky stood up again, spitting dust while their attendants rushed out to grab a hold of their horses. The overseers were frantically writing down results. Some riders had remained on their horses, but so had their opponents, which meant both were out. The only ones to advance to the next round were those who had forced their adversaries to kiss the ground.

“The sound is so deafening,” Arndis said. “It surprises me every year.”

Athelstan nodded. “Keeping a calm head is not easy in such conditions. I do not miss being on the field.”

“Not even the glory?” Brand asked. “The honour gained?”

“When I was young, it did hold much appeal. But I have grown old, I suppose,” Athelstan mused. “Unlike Sir Richard,” he added with a chuckle.

“He rides now,” Brand said, gesturing to the aforementioned knight as he took position in the near end of the square.

“Is Sir Eumund on the field?” asked Arndis.

“I will alert you when he is,” Athelstan said smiling.

Twenty more riders, all of them knights of the Order except for one nobleman from Vidrevi, took their place opposite each other. The herald shouted their names, gave a signal, and the silver horn blew a rumbling note. Twenty horses thundered against each other; half their riders fell to the ground. Dust and cheers surrounded the lancers, and a few were confident enough to wave and return the crowd’s adorations, Sir Richard of Alwood among them. He rode out of the square and dismounted, letting his sergeant grab the reins of the horse. “Well performed, milord.”

“He was greener than his spurs,” Richard spoke dismissively. “A silkworm, hardly a challenge. Where is my wine?” The sergeant handed him a skin, which the knight opened and placed against his mouth until his cheeks had same colour as the wine.

“It is early to partake,” said Sir Philip of Plenmont as he walked by. He himself was holding a tankard of light ale, which was scarcely stronger than water. “Not even noon if I read the sun correctly.”

“It will only make my victory all the more impressive,” Richard smiled and gestured with the wineskin while Philip mounted his horse and entered the square.

“You are drinking early,” Eumund said as he passed by, having won his joust.

“Himil’s balls! Do not start as well,” Richard exclaimed sourly.

“Who of them look strong?” asked Eumund.

“Sir Philip is not bad for a garlic eater,” Richard said in a casual voice.

“I do not see any of the House of Vale jousting,” Eumund remarked.

“They do not want to get their hands dirty,” Richard laughed. “They prefer to pay others to do the fighting. Be calm, Eumund, there are plenty of silkworms out there for you to knock down.”

The joust continued for more than an hour at full speed until the number of contestants had shrunk considerably; at that point, a break was called. Less than twenty remained, all of them knights of the Order; a small handful hailed from Korndale, one or two from the western realms, and the rest were from Adalrik. They took the time to tend to their horses. They were not allowed to switch mounts once the joust had begun, so extraordinary care was shown.

The guild labourers had work to do as well before the joust continued, replacing a few of the fences that had taken some abuse. One particularly unlucky knight from Ealond had been knocked off his horse, but his stirrups had been improperly adjusted and his left boot had been caught. Therefore, instead of being pushed back cleanly, the left stirrup had retained its hold on him, and the momentum had swung him onto the fence. A few priestesses of Idisea were tending to him, though fortunately for him his armour saved his spine from snapping in twain.

“Has your opinion of the outcome changed, Sir Athelstan,” asked Brand, “now that we have seen our knights in action?”

Athelstan scratched his cheek. “Sir Philip has lived up to his reputation, I must say. I do not think I have seen stronger performance than he displays.”

“I would hold with your previous assessment. I have not laid eyes on Sir Richard before this day, but I place my trust in him,” Brand ventured to say.

“Neither of you should count Sir Eumund out,” Arndis said, defending her champion. “He shows excellent horsemanship.”

“Indeed my lady, you are most observant. Still, Sir Philip seems by my judgement to hit his targets perfectly.”

“Should we make a wager?” asked Brand. “I would venture a hundred silver that says Sir Richard proves my faith justified.”

“Brand!” Arndis exclaimed.

“He has a habit of drinking wine early,” Athelstan said, not too loudly. “Knowing that, I cannot in good honesty take such a wager from you.”

“And you should not be making wagers at all,” Arndis admonished him sternly. “It is not a good habit, Brother.”

“Peace, Sister, peace,” Brand conceded, throwing his hands up. “The stake shall merely be the honour of having the keenest eye.”

Cheers and applause could be heard as the remaining knights rode into the arena. Now that they were less than twenty, they had ample space to ride up and down the square and receive the accolades of the adoring crowds. Philip wasted no time in winning the hearts of many, while both Richard and Eumund kept away; Richard was emptying his wineskin while Eumund was checking his stirrups. They both mounted their horses as the herald stepped forward to silence the spectators and announce the next round of jousts.

Nine riders moved to one end of the square to face their opponents. Their squires and sergeants gave them lances and stepped away. A silver horn sounded the signal, and the knights spurred their horses forward. Once again, the sound of hooves against the ground and the gasps of the crowd were combined with lances splintering against shields and men in armour striking the ground. For a moment, everything was confusion, and all eyes darted everywhere to see what horses were now without rider.

Not that many as it turned out. In more than one lane, none of the riders had managed to throw the other from his horse, and both had to leave the competition. Philip raised the splinters of his lance with a victorious roar, having already seen his counterpart dive through the air. The overseers huddled together in conference until the herald could announce that only seven knights advanced to the next round. As an uneven number, only six of them would ride against each other. The seventh would be given a pause, and as last year’s winner, Richard was given this privilege.

“Do not worry about getting your rest,” shouted one knight to Richard. “You will soon be on your back in the dirt anyway,” he laughed before riding to take his position.

“Who was that?” Richard scowled.

“Sir Thomas of Coldharbour, I believe,” said his sergeant. “I hear he won a tournament earlier this year in Ealond.”

“A Vale man,” Richard said with contempt. “Tell the overseers I want to ride against Sir Thomas,” he told his sergeant, adding extra disdain upon speaking Thomas’ title. “We will see if he can use his lance better than his mouth.”

“Yes, milord,” the sergeant said, leaving to convey Richard’s wish.

Without further delay, the six knights rode against each other. This time, it was obvious that the chaff had been sorted away and only the wheat remained. All three lanes were resolved and saw a rider unhorsed. Constant cheers rose at the sight of such skill in jousting, and the excitement was boiling among all who looked. With only four knights remaining, the herald allowed himself to elaborate on his announcement.

“Great prince,” he called out, “venerable Lady Isabel, my lords and ladies, men and women of high and low birth, people of Middanhal, and all who have come from every corner of Adalmearc! The four greatest knights in the realms remain and will joust to please your eyes, thrill your hearts, and win your adoration!”

He raised his hand and gestured to one corner. “Sir Philip of Plenmont, a most noble knight from Korndale and known throughout all the lands for his skill with the lance, which is without peer!” The crowds responded with much cheer.

The herald pointed to another corner of the square. “Sir Eumund of Isarn, made knight only days ago and yet proving himself stronger than many others!” Louder claps and cries, and many sitting with red and black cloaks on the tribunes smiled and looked satisfied.

The herald turned to the third corner. “Sir Thomas of Coldharbour, the winner of tournaments throughout the realm, whose glory is only surpassed by his valour!” He was the least known of the four remaining knights, which meant a more subdued response from the onlookers except from the kinsfolk of the House of Vale; Coldharbour lay in their territory.

Finally, the herald could point to the fourth corner. “Sir Richard of Alwood, last year’s champion in the joust!” While the House of Vale cheered for Sir Thomas and the House of Isarn cheered for Eumund, the commoners cheered for Richard, and the square exploded in noise. “Since we are so close to finding our champion,” the herald announced, “the final two jousts will be fought one at a time. And to ensure they are both resolved satisfactorily, they will ride until one unhorses the other!”

“Why are they changing the rules?” asked Brand.

“If neither rider throws his opponent from his horse, they both forfeit by the normal rules,” Athelstan explained. “Now, they must ride until one wins decisively and can challenge Sir Richard or Sir Thomas in the final joust.”

Athelstan was forced to be silent as the herald spoke again. “Sir Philip and Sir Eumund will ride first!”

The knights lined up to face each other. People pressed against the outer fences in anticipation. Athelstan and Brand both leaned forward while Arndis bit her lower lip. The silver horn was sounded, and the knights rode against each other. One lance splintered, one glanced off its target; Eumund was pushed back from his horse and fell to the ground while Philip triumphantly rode on.

 “A shame about Eumund,” said Brand.

“It is his first tournament,” Athelstan said with a light tone of voice. “He has acquitted himself well on that account. And young hotspur that he is, he will also take part of the grand fight afterwards.”

“We shall wish for his victory then,” Arndis proclaimed.

“You are kind not to withdraw your favour,” Athelstan smiled. “But first let us see the end of the joust and whom Sir Philip faces.”

Richard rode to one end of the square on his mare while Thomas of Coldharbour took position opposite. The latter wore a scornful smile at the sight of Richard’s horse, which was significantly less impressive than his own charger. Richard threw a wineskin to his sergeant, adjusted his shield, and accepted a lance. Sentiments were simmering, especially considering Thomas was a southerner and Richard was a northerner. While most spectators might prefer a champion who hailed from Adalrik, there were many who would rather see Philip from Korndale win than someone from the wrong half of Adalrik. The silver horn was sounded once more. A clash of metal, wood, training, and skill. Richard’s lance struck true, Thomas’ less so. The latter was sent flying while Richard rode on to the cheers of the audience.

“Seems we both judged well,” Athelstan remarked. “Either I will be right about Sir Philip or you will be about Sir Richard.”

“Last chance to lose a hundred silver,” Brand said wryly.

“Brand!” came the interjection again from Arndis.

“I jest, Sister, only a jest. Knowing I am right when Sir Richard knocks Sir Philip off his horse is worth more than coin.”

“We shall see,” Athelstan laughed.

The herald once more took his time to make introductions of the last two knights, now jousting to be champion. “Sir Philip,” he shouted, “the winner of many tournaments in Korndale, Ealond, Hæthiod. In all of Korndale, no knight stands his equal. His lance strikes with perfection, and nobody so far has stood against him and made him flinch!” Sir Philip raised his lance high and commanded the applause of the crowd.

The herald turned to announce the other knight. “Sir Richard,” he yelled once more, “margrave of Alwood and a credit to the people of Theodstan. In all of Adalrik, nobody is as fearsome with a lance as he is! Now he may prove that the same holds true for all of Adalmearc!” Sir Richard raised his hand in salutation to the crowd before he claimed his lance from his sergeant.

“Take positions, good knights, and be prepared to be made champion!” The silver horn was blown and both knights spurred their horses forward. The crowd became breathless, and all sounds disappeared except hooves against clay and stone beneath. Lances struck and splintered. One knight was lifted off his horse and fell to the ground.

Tension was so high that for a moment nobody seemed to fathom who had won and who had lost. Tongues were tied and eyes wide open as one horse stopped without its rider while the victorious knight threw the remains of his lance to the ground. Then the tension erupted into cheers and chants.

“Sir Richard! Sir Richard! Sir Richard!” The knight removed his helmet, revealing his red face and grin, and he threw the helmet into the crowd in sheer jubilation.

Philip hobbled over, removing his helmet as well. “Well fought,” Philip admitted.

“And you, sir knight,” Richard replied, nodding to his defeated opponent before turning to wave at the adoring crowds. An overseer gestured for Richard to approach the tribune, which the knight ignored for as long as he pleased. Finally though, he steered his horse over to where the prince sat and dismounted. His lack of height meant he disappeared entirely behind his horse, and an official took the reins so that he might step forward.

“Congratulations,” said Sigmund. “You must be strong to win the joust again.”

“Thank you, my prince,” grinned Richard. “The secret is that I present a smaller target than these knights are accustomed to,” he laughed. This evoked some nervous laughter among the nobility seated around the prince, though his mother quickly elbowed her son.

“Sir Richard of Alwood, I name you champion of the horse. As a reward for your victory, this purse is yours,” the prince said, and a heavy purse of silver was given to Sir Richard, heavier than that which Nicholas from Tothmor had received. “And this is yours as well as a token of your skill,” the prince added and gave Richard an ivory figurine of a jousting rider. Richard bowed deeply, pocketed the ivory piece, and opened the purse of silver. As he walked away, laughing once more, he dug his hands into the purse and began to throw the silver in every direction into the crowd.

~~~~

The people had been spellbound, but now that the joust was over, they scattered in every direction. It was afternoon, and although the grand fight was yet to be held, there was a natural lull in the excitement. Most were contemplating food and drink, the main cause of why many now left the stands. Some on the tribunes remained in place, however, and had food brought to them.

“Theodoric, where are you going? Holebert will be here any moment with our meal,” said Theodwyn.

“You may begin without me, Sister,” answered the jarl of Theodstan. “I shall return before long.” Before his sister could protest further, the jarl swiftly left his seat and moved through the tribunes. The cloaks in red and gold of the House of Vale were displeased to let him pass, but his grim and gaunt appearance helped make way as did his status as jarl. “May we speak privately, my lord?” Theodoric asked as he reached Valerian. With a curious expression, the jarl of Vale gestured for room to be made. The jarl’s brother and his chamberlain remained, however, and Valerian made no move to dismiss them. Accepting this, Theodoric took a seat.

“Congratulations on your champion,” said Valerian.

“While I would hazard to say that Sir Richard won mostly for his own sake, he does shine some glory on the whole jarldom of Theodstan,” said Theodoric. “He is a poor margrave but a good friend, and I am glad for his victory.”

“I do not feel envious though,” claimed Valerian. “Considering how much wine from Ealond is being consumed today, I feel like the true winner of all the games today.”

“Yes, it is excellent as ever. You really must send me a jar before I leave the city.”

“I shall send you a barrel,” promised Valerian. “But I doubt you came here to discuss the matters of trade or ask for petty favours.”

“I will be plain, Valerian,” said the jarl of Theodstan after a brief pause. “What are your plans for the Adalthing?”

“You may ask,” answered the jarl of Vale. “But a merchant does not show his ledger to his rivals.”

“I asked mostly out of courtesy,” countered Theodoric. “I am well aware of your attempts to buy the support of more than one landgrave. I might almost feel hurt that you have not asked me. I do bring seven margraves with me.”

“Perhaps I do not need your noblemen,” said Valerian.

“Another negotiation tactic,” smiled Theodoric. “You would have me believe the majority is secured already?”

“Believe what you wish, Theodoric, for it makes no difference to me.”

“I do not need to believe. Isarn will oppose you at every turn. And I have it on good authority that Ingmond is not supporting you.”

“Whose authority?” Valerian was quick to ask.

“My own,” Theodoric said casually.

“I do not need Ingmond. With all my margraves, I could win the vote even if no other jarl supports me.”

“If,” Theodoric said forcefully, “if all the landgraves and both the atheling houses follow you. Now that seems a stretch.”

“So have you come to offer me your votes? How many barrels might that cost me?” asked Valerian, which made Theodoric laugh. “Or perhaps,” Valerian continued, “you seek another form of compensation. Are you seeking to be seneschal once more, Theodoric?”

This evoked another outburst of laughter from the jarl of Theodstan. “I have had my fill, I think. It is a good position for making enemies. When I lost the king’s grace, I was surprised the Adalthing did not demand my head on a spike.”

“Come now, Theodoric, that is overly dramatic,” Valerian admonished. “We hardly ever execute people in Adalrik. Now exile would have been my guess. I was surprised you were allowed to remain jarl.”

“Because I did not make enemies with you,” Theodoric said. “I was always careful to never antagonise you, Valerian. Because unlike Isenhart I know a deal can always be made with you.”

“Yet you have still not mentioned what you propose.”

“I wish to make Sir Reynold the lord protector.”

A snort of disbelief came from Valerian. “The lord marshal? You do not think commanding the Order is enough? You would give him all civil power as well?”

“I would entrust it with him in the way a man places his most valuable possession in his strongest lockbox. Sir Reynold has no designs on this power. He will merely keep it until our prince can take the throne.”

“Tell me, my lord jarl,” interceded Valerian’s brother Konstans, “if a man will not use power, is he deserving of it? We do not give sharp swords to boys who cannot wield them.”

“No,” answered Theodoric. “But we do know to keep torches away from lamp oil. This land, this realm is a firetrap waiting to burn everything into cinders. If the wrong man is elected lord protector, it will set flame to firewood.”

Valerian placed his fingertips against each other as he leaned forward in contemplation. “What does Theodstan offer Vale for helping to keep the flames at bay? For if you will not see me as lord protector, nor can you abide that I take office of seneschal, surely.”

“You have matters you would wish for the Adalthing to support you in, surely,” Theodoric said. “Matters that are of no concern to me, and hence my voice and my margraves could be counted upon to support you.”

“That is a very vague offer,” Valerian smiled while watching the square, “compared to the very real power of being lord protector.”

“You have always expressed an interest in the marble trade in Heohlond,” Theodoric mentioned. “Yet they are not fond of southerners that far north, are they. I, on the other hand, am their neighbour. There is much I could do to facilitate a foothold for you in the highlands.”

“Tempting,” Valerian said, though his tone of voice was rather disinterested. “But not nearly enough.”

Theodoric took a deep breath. “Guardianship of the prince.” This had the effect of making both Valerian and Konstans turn their heads immediately to face Theodoric. “It is only right that the prince is introduced to the matters of government by someone skilled in handling them. And it is our custom to send our sons to live with our peers and learn how to become men,” Theodoric continued.

“Both the kingthanes and his mother have objected to the prince being sent out of Middanhal or becoming ward to any nobleman,” Konstans claimed.

“And the king listened to them. But he is gone, and if the lord protector commands, they must obey.”

“If I may humbly say my opinion, milord,” interjected Valerian’s chamberlain, Arion, and all heads turned towards him where he stood behind his jarl. “I agree with his lordship. Valcaster will be a good place for the prince to stay and learn. Perhaps become more amenable to the South.”

Valerian turned to his right to look at his brother, who nodded slightly. Then he turned to his left to look at Theodoric again. “I make no promise yet. But if I do lend my voice to Sir Reynold, guardianship of the prince will be considered fair compensation.” Valerian extended his hand, and Theodoric grasped it with both hands, using all nine of his fingers and the stump that had once been his left little finger.

“Agreed,” Theodoric said satisfied.

The jarl of Theodstan stood up and took leave. When he was gone, Valerian turned to Konstans. “It sounds like a step down from lord protector to merely be the prince’s guardian.”

“We will consider that our secondary aim,” Konstans shrugged, “if we cannot secure our primary goal. Arion is right. A king who looks upon the South as more than merely lands and people to tax would be welcome.”

“I live to serve,” the chamberlain said and bowed deeply. “If you will pardon me, there are a few matters I should attend to.”

Having excused himself, Arion left the tribunes and searched around the square. He had to ask a few times and eventually paid some street boys a few copper coins to help him locate his target. “Nicholas from Tothmor?” asked Arion, to which the archer from Hæthiod nodded. “My congratulations on your victory. I am chamberlain for the jarl of Vale, who wishes to retain your services.”

“My services? He wants to hire me?”

“Indeed. My lord employs many skilled soldiers and archers, and he is always looking to find more. As the richest man in Adalrik, being in his employ can be most gainful.”

“Tell him thanks,” said Nicholas, “but only I came here to win the tournament.”

“For an archer of your mettle,” Arion added, “my lord would be glad to pay seven silver a day if you are at his disposal.”

“That is most generous,” Nicholas admitted, “but I do not intend to stay in Middanhal for much longer.”

“That is a shame,” Arion said. “He could have used an archer of your skill. Best of luck to you, Master Nicholas,” the chamberlain finished and disappeared into the crowds, which had begun to filter back towards the Temple square. The guildsmen had finished the next set of preparations, and the last and biggest attraction of the solstice was about to begin.

~~~~

The grand fight was the last of the three games held at solstice. It carried the most prestige and the greatest prize; in earlier times, it had been the only game, and anybody skilled with a blade might join. The contestants would be sorted into two teams. With a discreet delivery of coin, one could also ensure which team to end up on; this was useful for fighters who knew each other beforehand.

The rules were quite simple. Once the signal was given, both sides charged each other on foot and hacked away at each other until only members of one team remained in the fight. All those left standing were given a share of the prize money, and the captain of the thanes had the honour of naming a champion. This was because originally the grand fight had been arranged as a trial for new warriors to join the thanes of the king. It was still custom that any who reached the end of the grand fight be asked to join the king’s guard, though the captain of the thanes might extend or rescind this offer at his discretion.

The only rules were in regards to weaponry. Only blunted blades were permitted. Actual blunt weapons like hammers or maces were not allowed since they might inflict serious injury even to armoured opponents. Otherwise, the two sides simply fought until everybody on one side no longer could or wanted to get up and continue. It was an orgy of violence, and the crowds, nobles and commoners alike, were most enthusiastic about it. Trumpets rang as the warriors marched onto the square and each team lined up. Their helmets had been painted either white or black to tell them apart once combat began.

“See that warrior, the tall one nearest us, with a helmet marked white?” asked Athelstan.

“Yes,” Brand said. “Is he one to watch?”

“No,” Athelstan replied. “But next to him, even closer to us, you find Sir William of Tothmor.”

“The one who is called ‘the Unyielding’?” Arndis exclaimed. “He is in the tournament this year?”

“He is,” Athelstan told them. “I have never seen a better warrior than him, except when the captain Theobald was in his prime.”

“We shall see if you are better at predicting the winner of the grand fight than you were concerning the joust,” Brand taunted him good-naturedly.

“How did you guess that Sir Richard would win? I thought Sir Philip seemed invincible,” asked Athelstan.

“Sir Richard is short and does not tire his horse so quickly. Which by the way might seem clumsy, but I would judge it to have the strength of an ox. After so many rounds, the joust becomes a battle of endurance,” Brand pointed out.

“Sir Athelstan, did you say your kinsman would participate in the grand fight as well?” asked Arndis as she scouted the two ranks of warriors.

“In the far end, among the black helmets,” Athelstan smiled, pointing out Eumund with his surcoat of red and black.

With the two rows of warriors lined up against each other, everything was ready to begin. However, the overseers were happy to let the tension build and allow the warriors to inspect each other. Over two hundred blades had been drawn; some wielded with both hands and some paired with shields. Outbursts could be heard from the audience as people cried out the names of their favourites, spurring them onwards to action. Finally, the guild official gave a nod to the horn blower by his side, who made a single note. At once the sound was drowned by the war cries of more than two hundred throats as the warriors stormed forward and clashed. Soon, nothing could be heard but the song of metal and the cries of men.

Within moments, everything was utter chaos. The orderly battle line disintegrated with black and white helmets clashing everywhere, sometimes literally. Constantly opponents sought each other out and traded blows. Due to the armour and blunted edges, these fights rarely ended because either party was incapacitated, but simply because the tide of battle pulled duellists apart and other challengers appeared. The constant, violent movements made it near impossible to follow any one combatant, and the crowd was mostly reduced to simply watching blows exchanged between those warriors closest to the stands. But their outbursts of excitement made it clear that none were dissatisfied at the spectacle offered by the grand fight.

Soon, the first casualties became apparent. Despite the precautions, armour did not protect every part of the body, and even if made with a dull sword, a certain number of blows would make any man disinclined to stand up again. The priestesses of Idisea and the lay brothers were watching from the sidelines, and on occasion, they dove into the battlefield to drag a man out whom they had spotted in need of urgent assistance. The rest were left to crawl away by their own devices or to remain lying on the cobbled stones. A few times a warrior might valiantly get up and attempt to return to the fight, but a quick blow usually sent them back and dissuaded them of the notion a second time.

Only a small handful of the original two hundred or so remained. Away from the tribunes, a single white helmet was battling several adversaries. Nearer the tribune, primarily black-painted helmets now spread out and began to surround a small core of white helmets. Arndis clapped her hands as she saw Eumund in black strike past a shield and into the side of his opponent.

“Eumund always did well when we trained as pages,” Brand said.

“He is a true son of Isarn,” Athelstan said proudly.

Inch by inch and blow by blow, the remaining black helmets carved into the white contestants. It was not without cost and their numbers dwindled, but the advantage they had gained was clear. A white warrior attempted to get up, but a slender, adroit warrior wearing black slammed a shield into the fallen combatant’s face, and he made no further attempts. All in all, five black warriors remained at one end, Eumund among them. They all came to a halt, catching their breath and glancing around. As they composed themselves, they discovered what all the crowds now watched intently; it was the single remaining white helmet.

At the far end of the square, opposite the Temple, he parried a blow from one opponent and rammed the lower point of his triangular shield into the throat of another; then he turned and used his shield again to bash the sword away from his first enemy. Before the latter could recover, the white warrior followed through on his movement and made a complete spin so that his sword hammered into his opponent’s helmet. With groans, both enemies remained on the ground. The white warrior took a few steps forward and stood calmly awaiting the remaining five black helmets by the tribunes. Eumund glanced at his four comrades and beckoned them all to fan out and attack.

“Sir William,” Athelstan said with a voice that hinted of knowledge of the inevitable. “Watch.”

The five warriors with black helmets surrounded their prey like wolves, but they were not co-ordinated as such. When the first attacked, the others followed only with some hesitation and the knight needed nothing more. William used his shield to turn the first blow away, forcing the attacker into his comrade’s path and thereby foiling both assaults. Moving swiftly out of range of the others, William followed up with his sword to punish those he had brought out of balance while keeping his shield ready for further attacks. The numerical superiority was turned to nothing, and in this manner, one, two, three black helmets were soon struck down. Only Eumund and the short, slender warrior who exhibited skills in slamming shields remained to face William.

Having gained a better understanding of their foe, Eumund and the short warrior kept their distance and exchanged looks. They circled around to stand on either side of William. Then they nodded to each other and both struck. William caught both their blows; he stopped Eumund on his right with his own sword, the unknown warrior on his left with his shield. Being stronger and having the full size of the shield at his disposal, William pushed back on his left so his shorter opponent was forced backwards. While he did this, he pulled his sword away from Eumund’s; the sudden absence of resistance forced Eumund to take a step forward to regain his balance.

This gave William the blink of an eye to follow up against the shorter of his enemies. If he were to turn his sword around to use the tip for the blow or to pull his shield back and then push it forward again, it would take too much time. Therefore, he simply kept the same path that his sword had taken when he extricated it from Eumund’s until the pommel of his hilt struck the unknown warrior on the jaw. The blow was of such strength, it knocked the helmet off and revealed flowing, blond hair. Before his opponent could recover, William crouched low and struck his shield into his staggered opponent’s knee, which also allowed him to dodge Eumund’s sword that came swinging over his head. With a cry of pain, the unknown warrior dropped weapons and fell to the ground. Resuming position, William turned to face Eumund, his final opponent.

Both men withdrew briefly, breathing heavily and tasting the salt of their sweat as it ran down their faces. “You are Sir Athelstan’s nephew,” William said, recognising him. “Remind me of your name, sir knight?” he asked.

“I am Eumund of the House of Isarn, son of Isenhart of that house,” replied his adversary.

“I am William of Tothmor,” came the answer. “Son of Gerard, also of that city. Whatever happens, I hail you as a worthy foe.”

“As I hail you,” answered Eumund, and then he attacked.

Now began the dance of blades as only two fighters remained and could devote their full attention to each other. Back and forth they exchanged blows, testing the defences and training of their opponent. Eumund fought with all fourteen years of training that being raised to become a knight conferred, and even before then he had already begun practising with the sword. Yet try as he might, he could not strike William. Whenever his sword moved, it was intercepted; if he attempted to strike with his shield, he had to stop and protect himself from immediate retaliation. The fight became extended and the crowds quiet as they witnessed the pinnacle of the tournament whilst Eumund grew increasingly desperate.

Finally his chance came. An opening as William lashed out with his shield, which left a gap in his defences. Immediately Eumund struck out. William stopped the movement of his shield and turned it back; it trapped Eumund’s sword long enough that he could not defend his right side from William’s sword, which struck down a paralysing blow on his shoulder. Eumund lost his sword and felt William pummel him on his right hip, making him fall to his knees. “I yield!” Eumund called out, raising his empty right hand. “I yield,” he said again, more quietly the second time.

William halted his attack and exhaled. He stood still, observing Eumund as if it took him a moment to realise what this meant. Then he turned and glanced around. None stood against him. Letting his shield drop and lowering his sword as well, William moved across the square. Where two hundred warriors had stood, only William remained and the crowds chanted his name in exuberance. He did not gesture or return their adorations; in fact, he seemed oblivious to them. He only moved towards the tribunes and the royal canopy.

An overseer moved to whisper William’s name in Berimund’s ear, and the captain of the thanes stepped forward. “Well, this makes it easy to choose the champion of the grand fight,” the bearlike man said. “Well done, Sir William of Tothmor. As captain of the king’s thanes it is my duty to name you the winner of the grand fight, and I would be glad to offer you a position among the thanes.”

“Thank you, Lord Berimund, but my position as a knight in the Order will suffice,” answered William.

“Are you the one they call ‘Unyielding’?” asked the prince.

“I am, my prince.”

“Why?” Sigmund asked curiously.

There was a moment’s of hesitation or disbelief. “Because I do not yield, my prince.”

“That is sensible, I suppose,” the prince said contemplatively. His mother nudged him, and he continued. “Sir William of Tothmor, I name you champion of the sword and grand champion of the tournament. A purse to celebrate your victory,” Sigmund said as a servant gave the heaviest purse of the day to William. The prince stood up and extended an ivory carving of a swordsman to the knight. “And this is so all may recognise your skill as a warrior,” he said. Sir William thanked him, accepting the figurine before he turned and walked away while the crowds cheered and applauded.

~~~~

With the conclusion of the grand fight, the solstice tournament was over. The day was not yet at an end, but there was a definite change moving through the crowds. Most people had exhausted their enthusiasm for the day, and hungry stomachs and dry throats demanded attention from many. The ritual of solstice had yet to be undertaken, but it would be hours away. The guild labourers began to remove the fences, and the square became open for movement once more. The tribunes were also being dismantled, and the royal retinue as well as most of the noblemen began to disperse.

“My lord jarl,” said Godfrey as he intercepted Theodoric returning towards the Citadel.

“I shall see you back at the castle,” Theodoric told his sister.

“You keep the oddest company,” Theodwyn said and continued with the guards and servants.

“It is you. The Quill’s acquaintance of doubtful nature,” the jarl of Theodstan said with insincere mirth.

“None other,” Godfrey answered with a mock bow. “I saw you speak with the jarl of Vale.”

“Did you now,” Theodoric said while he scrutinised the man in front of him.

“Was he amenable to your designs concerning the Adalthing?” Godfrey asked unfazed.

“To some extent. If Valerian knows that Elis controls Ingmond and believes that Elis will support him, he has no reason to bargain with me. Tomorrow he will learn that Elis has dealings with Isenhart, however,” Theodoric smiled, “and perhaps that will change his mind.”

“If you truly make this happen, you will have impressed me,” Godfrey stated.

“I will have impressed myself as well,” Theodoric admitted.

“I shall not disturb your preparations further,” Godfrey said and inclined his head before he vanished into the crowd. The jarl of Theodstan stood watching him until he was gone before walking back to the castle.

Others were slower to return. It would be some hours until the solstice fire was lit, and they would serve food at the Citadel almost until the ritual was about to start. Rather than separate from Brand and Arndis and return to the Isarn estate, Athelstan lingered at the square while the three of them walked around, watching the priests and priestesses prepare.

“How did you find the solstice games, Brand?”

“I remember them as different, more chaotic. I suppose now I understand better what takes place. The details that decide the outcome. In some respect I can almost view it like a chessboard with pieces that can only perform in this or that manner.”

“Heavens save us,” Athelstan laughed. “I should never have taught you chess.”

“It would have been some long hours in Alcázar without the game,” Brand countered.

“It has been at least two or three years since I defeated your brother,” Athelstan said to Arndis.

“Perhaps I will be more fitting opposition for you, Sir Athelstan,” said Arndis. “Brand has been teaching me the game.”

“She displays a keen mind for the intricacies,” Brand praised her, which made her glance away shyly.

“Heavens save us twice,” Athelstan laughed again. “One Arnling I can perhaps handle, but two? I shall need divine assistance. Do you still have that piece I gave you?” he asked of Brand. In response, the squire dug out the wooden figurine that represented a king from his pocket.

“What is that?” Arndis asked curiously. Athelstan extended his hand towards Brand in a gesture inviting the latter to explain.

“When Sir Athelstan and I travelled to Alcázar and he began teaching me chess, I was thirteen,” Brand began to recount. “The first time I beat him, I was sixteen. He gave me this piece, his fallen king, as a memory of my first victory,” the squire explained, his fingers twirling the elegantly carved wood.

“If I recall, I told you to let it serve as a reminder that you could accomplish anything,” Athelstan added.

“Indeed,” Brand nodded with a smile, “and I have often made use of it in that manner.”

“A pleasant story,” Arndis said. “If you will pardon me, though, I see a familiar face that I wish to greet.”

“Will you be well on your own?” asked Brand with a touch of concern.

“Of course, Brother.” She smiled, gave him a quick kiss on his cheek, made a short bow to Athelstan, and vanished to join other noblewomen returning to the castle.

“I am glad we are returned,” Athelstan said, “and to see you reunited with family. I confess I missed mine while we were abroad.”

“It might feel odd at times that my sister and I should have such easy relations, yet I am glad we do,” said Brand. “In Alcázar, I barely remembered my family.”

“Growing up in the Order has that effect,” Athelstan said gravely. “It is why I am now cautious not to place the needs of the Order above the needs of my kin.”

“I suppose both she and I know that we have no other relatives. I have written to Heohlond, but none of my mother’s family seem to remain.”

“You have a kinsman in me,” Athelstan said earnestly. “The Order makes us brothers, Brand, as do our shared past.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Brand smiled. “Though I do long to be considered your equal truly.”

Athelstan gave a quick laugh. “Of course. Your day of birth is next month, is it not?”

“Indeed,” Brand replied.

Athelstan nodded. “You shall have your vigil soon after. I have already told the Master of the Citadel that you are worthy and ready to gain your spurs.” Hearing this, the squire gave Athelstan his profound thanks, and they continued walking around the square while discussing the solstice games and anything else that came to mind.

~~~~

As the early evening bell rang from the Citadel, most of the nobility had made their way back from the square. Roasting spits with meat and large platters, bowls and baskets of food were brought into the dining hall. When he returned to the Citadel, the black-clad jarl of Theodstan did not join the others for the meal, however. Instead, he went to his quarters and into his private bedchamber.

“Are you not going to the meal, milord?” asked a voice. The jarl looked up and saw one of his servants removing a leather tunic to reveal a slim figure underneath.

“Why are you in here?” he asked.

“I thought I should remain out of sight. At least until this grows less conspicuous,” came the answer, accompanied by cautiously touching a bruise on the chin. Theodoric walked over and inspected the discoloured skin.

“From when Sir William pummelled you?” he asked, to which the servant nodded. “What name did you enter into the contest?”

“Holwine from Theodstan,” was the grinning answer.

“You are too fond of using that name,” Theodoric argued. “It will catch up with you one day.”

“Maybe,” came a shrug as reply.

“Well, ‘Holwine’,” the jarl said with emphasis on the name, “I hope the bruise was worth fighting in the tournament.”

“It was,” Holwine replied, grinning again. “I would never have guessed Sir William was so strong, you’d think he was Elven-touched or had some other dark power.”

“Even though his reputation more or less proclaims him the greatest swordsman in the land? You underestimated him?”

“Reputations exaggerate,” Holwine replied with slender fingers still carefully brushing over the bruise.

“If Theodwyn sees it, you better have a good excuse. She is already rather doubtful of your habits in clothing. She would never let you hear the end of it if she learned you entered the grand fight.”

“You give your sister too little credit, milord,” claimed Holwine. “She is always intrigued by a clever deception.”

“You were fortunate none were close by when your helmet was knocked off.”

Holwine gave a shrug, tugging a stray lock back under the cap that kept the rest of its brethren locked away. “Do not underestimate the power of assumption. Fighting in the tournament, wielding weapons and wearing armour, there was no danger.”

“Regardless, you have had your amusement. I have a task for you which supersedes your need to be inconspicuous.”

“Speak, milord, and see it be done,” Holwine promised.

“The Quill, he has a companion. A friend, acquaintance, I do not know. They approached me together concerning the Adalthing, and he approached me again today after the grand fight.”

“Is he the travel-worn man you spoke with? I saw him just before I slipped away.”

“The very same,” Theodoric nodded. “That makes it easier. I want you to find out what you can about him. He does not seem to have much respect for his betters, and he is an unknown factor, which unsettles me.” Holwine gave a deep bow and left the jarl’s bedchamber.

~~~~

The tolling of the last evening bell was still hours away when people once more congregated at the Temple square. All signs of the day’s tournaments were gone. Instead, a great structure of firewood had been built in the centre. For this event, there were no tribunes or seats. All were to stand, though the nobles usually had a ring of guards surrounding them in the crowd. The prince was there with Berimund and the kingthanes keeping all at bay. In one part of the square, the jarl of Isarn and his kinsfolk gathered. In another could be found the jarl of Vale and his people, and so it continued for all the groupings of nobility. They formed circles of colour in between which the commoners mingled in their ordinary drab.

People were idly chatting among themselves with most topics revolving around the day’s competitions when a procession appeared, leaving through the Temple doors. As people spotted the hooded figures carrying torches, they hushed, and so silence rippled out as the crowd became aware that the solstice ritual had begun.

Seven people, dressed in robes with the various colours of their religious order, moved down the stairs and across the square until they reached the pile of firewood. The first figure moved right, the second figure left; the third right again, and so on until they had surrounded the fire. The seventh and last person remained standing and completed the circle. Then he raised his hand and pulled down the hood of his grey robe.

“We come before you, oh Lord of All, on this the most holy of days. Only today may we stand before you with uncovered face and feel your light shine upon us. Alfather, beginning of all, whose name is sacred and must not be spoken. I, your priest, beseech you to continue to shine your light upon your children and let your blessings rain upon us. This will be.”

The final three words were repeated by the crowd. The high priest made the sign of the seven-pointed star across his chest with his right hand. Then he spoke again. “Rihimil, Guardian of the World, Champion of All, Knight in Black, Lord of the Dragons, we seek your blessings. You, who keep the eternal vigil. Grant us that we are ever strong. This will be.” The words were repeated by all. To his right, one of the priests removed his hood and made the sign of the seven-pointed star.

“Idisea, Guardian of the World, Healer of All, Ever-flowing Life, Final Embrace, we seek your blessings. You, whose tears flowed like rain. Grant us that our children shall ever be born and grow strong. This will be.” After the repetition of words, a priestess removed her hood and made the sign.

“Egnil, Guardian of the World, Keeper of All, Ever-burning Fire, Master of the Land, we seek your blessings. You, who ignited the fire. Grant us that a flame shall ever burn and keep us strong. This will be.”

“Disfara, Guardian of the World, Judge of All, Gatekeeper, Queen of the Deep, we seek your blessings. You, whose strength held the sea at bay. Grant us that the waters shall ever be our friend and force us to be strong. This will be.”

“Hamaring, Guardian of the World, Forger of All, Hammer of Strength, Friend in Faith, we seek your blessings. You, who hammered the bones of the earth. Grant us that the earth shall ever be our servant and make us strong. This will be.”

“Austre, Guardian of the World, Watcher of All, Eye of the Heavens, Hunter among the Leaves, we seek your blessings. You, whose voice bade life spring forth. Grant us that life may ever grow and nourish us to be strong. This will be.”

“Hidden One, Guardian of the World, Protector of All, Eternal Wanderer, Shadow Cloak, we seek your blessings. You, who are the end and yet the beginning. Grant us ever your strength. This will be.”

As the high priest spoke the final words of the ritual, all seven hoods had been removed. All moved forward as one and lit the fire with their torches. “May the light burn through the night and keep it ever beyond the threshold of the world. This will be.”

The three words were repeated one final time as the flames consumed the wood and burned merrily. The seven priests and priestesses turned and walked back into the Temple. Briefly, the tension of the holy moment kept all in place and no sound was spoken. Then the moment passed and released people from its grasp. Chatter broke out, people moved about, music was played, songs were sung, and they began the dance that would last through the night for as long as the flames burned.

~~~~

There were still some hours of the feast remaining when Nicholas from Tothmor walked across the Arnsbridge and into Lowtown. There were people everywhere with revelry and merriment filling the streets. The otherwise expressionless archer smiled on occasion as he witnessed the mirth, but he did not stop and let himself be swept into it. Instead, he made his way through the chaos of buildings until he was near his lodgings. Even from a distance, he could see music and laughter emitting from inside.

Before Nicholas could move inside, however, a heavy hand slapped down on his shoulder and forced him to turn around. “You have something of mine,” came a brusque voice. It was the archer from Thusund, his opponent in the competition.

“I cannot see how that is,” Nicholas said, squirming and twisting his shoulder out of the other man’s grip, and he immediately took a few steps backwards to get out of reach.

“My arrow would have hit if you hadn’t shot first and killed the rabbit,” the islander said, looming over the shorter man from Hæthiod.

“But I did shoot first, and I did hit,” Nicholas objected, still retreating. “I won on fair grounds.”

“That’s not how I see it,” threatened the man from Thusund.

“But it’s the truth nonetheless,” Nicholas said, and he was close enough to the tavern to turn and hurry inside. He was not pursued further, and with a relieved expression, he made his way out back to the stable. Once inside, he let out a sigh and fell into the haystack that served as his bed.

He placed his bag on the ground and dug his hands inside. He rummaged quickly through its contents, finding the purse with his bowstring, the pack with his arrows, the oils and rags for his bow staff, a flask of water, some cheese and a sausage, and everything else inside until he was satisfied. He placed the bow staff against the wall and leaned back, taking a few deep breaths and relaxing.

Nicholas heard the sound of movement; his eyes shot open and only relaxed when he saw that it was the tavern keeper. “Nicholas from Tothmor!” the jolly man exclaimed. “I heard your name proclaimed when they finished the archery contest. I have made sure that everybody knows you are the guest of Gilbert! Come back inside and prove my words true to the patrons.”

“Thanks,” muttered Nicholas, “but I think it’s best I stay here. I must save my silver for when I go home.”

“Ha!” came another outburst. “You are the champion of the bow! You think you need to spend one copper coin tonight? Even if those miserable misers won’t pay for your ale, it’ll be on the house.”

“Well,” Nicholas said as the burly barkeep’s mirth became contagious, “I guess I could have a drink.”

“That’s the spirit!” roared Gilbert as Nicholas followed him back into the common room, full of light and song. “Ellen, ale for our champion!” yelled the tavern keeper, and the maid quickly complied, bringing Nicholas a tankard.

“Thanks,” he said, taking a careful sip.

“You’re welcome,” she said smiling. “I saw you shoot. Made me think you were an Elven changeling,” she laughed.

“A what?” Nicholas asked, talking loudly over the noise.

“A changeling,” Ellen shouted back. “Back home, they say that if you have a newborn and if you are not careful, an Elf will go inside your home and steal the baby, leaving one of their own in return.”

“Well, I hope that didn’t happen to me,” Nicholas replied. “My mother always complained that it took her many hours to give birth to me, so I better have come from her,” he laughed.

“Not many Elves on the moors either, I take it,” Ellen laughed with him. “They prefer the bogs and the dark forests, they say, where they can prey on unwitting wanderers.”

“Sounds like we should be glad we don’t have them at home,” Nicholas told her, and she laughed again. Duty called and she disappeared to serve others, leaving Nicholas to exchange cheers with many others who wanted to celebrate the champion of the bow.

~~~~

It was late evening when Quill heard a knock upon the library door. “Enter,” he said, and Kate stepped through the door. She was wearing a clean, white dress and had obviously put considerable effort into scrubbing her hands. “Come, take a seat next to me,” Quill said, sitting on a bench by one of the tables he used for his work. In front of him, he had a small book.

“There are many ways of writing,” Quill informed her as she sat down. “In my home city of Alcázar, they have their own letters. In the north, they may still make messages with runes, which is said they learned from the Dwarves. Of course, we still write numbers with those very runes. However, these are the letters of Mearcspeech, which you will find used in nearly every book in here.”

“Mearcspeech?” Kate repeated, tasting the word.

“The language we are speaking now,” Quill said with a hint of amusement. “Adalspeech, it is also called at times, Nordspeech, and other names.”

“I never thought about it having a name,” Kate confessed, eyeing the book. “It’s just words, how we talk.”

“Perhaps we can awaken your understanding,” Quill said, placing the book between them. It had three words on its front, and Quill pointed at the first word in the title. “Each letter corresponds to a sound. However, in certain combinations, these sounds may change.” He moved his finger across the letters, telling her the sounds until she could read the first word.

“Song,” Kate said, gathering the sounds. They continued with the third word of the title until she could read that as well. “Sigvard. Song of Sigvard!” she added enthusiastically.

“Very good,” Quill said in praise. “You know it, I presume?”

“I hear it when they sing it at solstice,” Kate nodded.

“Yes, indeed. I thought we would begin by reading this. Since the words are familiar to you, it should not be too hard,” Quill said, opening the book onto the first page; they continued the lesson with Quill teaching her the letters, one by one, until the evening was at an end.

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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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