The Bonds That Bind Us
The jarl of Theodstan was taking breakfast in his quarters, not long after first bell, when a servant entered from the corridor. It was Holwine, whose attire showed signs of travel. “You were gone long,” Theodoric said briefly.
“Followed our man outside the city. He wasn’t meeting anyone though,” Holwine reported. “He seemed to be leaving for good, going south. I followed him for days, approaching Ingmond’s lands. I think he may have left the realm, he carried heavy provisions.”
“Learn anything of note?”
Holwine shrugged. “From what I can tell, this Godfrey met with none other than the Highfather, and it was more than once. But I couldn’t get close enough to find out why.”
“He met with the high priest himself?”
“Yes, but the Templars are a suspicious bunch. I could never hear what they spoke of.”
“I suppose it is of little consequence now,” Theodoric said, breaking off a piece of bread. “The Adalthing is concluded, all is in order.”
“Not quite,” Holwine said hesitantly.
“Yes?” Theodoric said, looking up.
“As I was walking back to the city last night, I saw something.” Holwine swallowed before continuing. “The beacon at Wyrmpeak. It was lit.”
“That sounds doubtful,” Theodoric said dismissively. “I am hardly certain the Order even mans the beacons anymore.”
“There’s no doubt,” Holwine insisted. “You haven’t been outside your chambers today, have you? Nobody knows anything for certain, but the city’s in an uproar, and there’s a flurry of activity in the Citadel.”
“I did wonder why people were so noisy,” Theodoric mumbled. “But those beacons have not been lit for what, five hundred years?”
“I wouldn’t know, milord, I wasn’t taught history.”
“If this is true, the Order will have to muster. I should speak with the lord marshal.”
“Do you require anything from me, milord?” asked Holwine.
“Help me get dressed,” Theodoric commanded. “And tell my sister when she returns from the gardens that we will have to postpone going to the Temple.”
In the largest estate in the city, horses were being saddled, about a score of them for the jarl’s brother Konstans and his retinue. It was a few days’ ride to Coldharbour and then by ship down the river to Valcaster, the seat of the House of the Vale. Stepping outside, Konstans found his warriors ready and by their horses. Slipping on his gloves, he turned to his brother and niece. “I shall see you in about a week,” Konstans told them.
“Perhaps two,” Valerian said hesitantly. “The caravans are bringing more goods each year, it is taking me longer to go through the ledgers. And there may be a few discrepancies I have to investigate.”
“I am sure you will root them out,” Konstans said, moving towards his horse.
“Safe travels, Uncle,” Valerie said quickly.
“Thank you, Valerie,” Konstans replied and mounted his horse. It was then that Konstantine came out into the courtyard.
“I see my son is gracing us with his presence as well, despite the early hour,” Konstans said with a sardonic smile, which elicited a few laughs from his followers.
“I was trying to find out what was going on,” Konstantine said sourly.
“What do you mean?” asked Valerian.
“The city is all in a knot,” Konstantine explained. “They say the beacon at Wyrmpeak was lit last night.”
“Impossible,” Konstans snorted out. “That hasn’t happened in –“
“Five hundred years,” Valerie finished his sentence.
“Probably just blackboots and raiders as usual,” Konstans said dismissively.
“That is not what people are saying,” Konstantine countered.
“All anyone could know at this point is that the beacon was lit,” Valerian interjected. “They have no basis for assuming one or the other.”
“Perhaps this is a poor time for me to leave Middanhal,” Konstans said contemplatively.
“Nonsense,” Valerian said. “It is important that everything is ready at Valcaster to receive the prince. If that is all we gained from the Adalthing, we will squeeze every copper coin from it.”
“It is taking place in Hæthiod, Father,” Konstantine argued. “It will not affect us here.”
“I suppose,” Konstans said, though he did not sound convinced.
“Give my regards to Mother,” Konstantine added, to which his father nodded. Then he signalled for the gate to be opened, and the twenty-one men rode out.
“Father, may I take one of the carriages to the Citadel?” Valerie asked.
“The daughter of Lord Marcaster would like to see me, and since they are leaving the city today…”
“Fine,” the jarl agreed, waving his hand dismissively. “Do you as wish. Do you require Konstantine to attend you?”
“Uncle,” Konstantine protested, “you cannot shackle me to the chatter of two women.”
“I think we will be fine,” Valerie chuckled. “Let my poor cousin spend his time as he wants.”
“As you say,” Valerian answered absently. “He can go with Arion to the warehouses.”
“Uncle,” Konstantine objected again, but Valerian had already turned around and headed back inside. With a chagrined look, Konstantine left as well, leaving Valerie out in the courtyard while the stable hands prepared a carriage for her.
At the Citadel even this early, several supplicants crowded the antechamber to the lord marshal’s quarters. As he had done on other occasions, the jarl of Theodstan walked past and knocked heavily on the door. “I am sorry, but his lordship is not receiving visitors today,” the servant answered and tried to close the door. Before he could, Theodoric placed one boot in between the door and the frame.
“Tell him the jarl of Theodstan is here,” Theodoric insisted.
“No visitors,” the servant repeated and tried awkwardly to close the door without offending the jarl.
“It will not take long. Tell the marshal I only wish to speak with him briefly.”
“It is fine, Regin,” the lord marshal said, appearing behind his servant. “The jarl can walk with me to my meeting. If he really can be as brief as he claims,” Reynold said, walking through the door and into the antechamber. Several of the hopeful audience seekers rose from their seats, but the lord marshal dismissed them with a gesture while Theodoric walked after him. “You have about a hundred paces until we reach the council chamber,” Reynold informed the jarl as they set a brisk pace.
“Is it true the beacon at Wyrmpeak was lit last night?” Theodoric asked.
“Yes. Is that all? You hardly needed to seek me out just to hear that,” Reynold replied.
“Are you certain it signals what it should? Have the outlanders crossed the Langstan in force?”
“I am certain that the beacons of the wall were lit, and they are only lit to signal an invasion. Since it was the Wyrmpeak, it means that eastern Hæthiod is where they have invaded. Now you know all that I do.”
“What do you intend to do?” asked Theodoric, forced to walk behind the lord marshal as the corridors became crowded with other people.
“That is what I have called a council to determine,” Reynold explained brusquely.
“Do you intend to travel to Hæthiod yourself?” the jarl questioned tentatively.
“It is the duty of the lord marshal to do so,” Reynold replied.
“That would be unwise,” Theodoric hurried to say as they came close to the council chamber. “The jarls are unhappy with how the Adalthing ended as are the landgraves. They were all given plenty of promises if they helped put their candidate into office. This is not the time for the lord protector to leave the realm.”
“They have you to thank for ending up with nothing,” Reynold retorted and turned to face Theodoric. “Come now, Theodoric, an invasion from the Reach! The first in centuries. Finally a proper war against an enemy that we all despise equally. Not like the debacle in Heohlond.”
“A debacle? That is how you would term it?” Theodoric asked incredulously.
“As lord protector I can call it what I please. As lord marshal I can tell you to remain here, outside,” Reynold told the jarl as they reached the council chamber. “Do not look so scorned, Theodoric,” the lord marshal continued. “The jarls will grumble as you do even now, but that is all. Now you must excuse me. I have a war waiting for me.” The lord marshal entered the chamber, and the jarl of Theodstan could hear somebody inform him that they were still waiting for Sir Roderic and Sir Athelstan to arrive. Then the door was closed, and Theodoric was left outside.
The Citadel had extensive, enclosed gardens within its domain. Some were restricted for the royal family, but the orchard and its adjacent gardens were open to all the noble inhabitants of the castle. This early in the morning there were few people except perhaps a servant or two using the gardens as a shortcut. Having arrived at the Citadel, Valerie now entered the flowered area. She walked around aimlessly, glancing at the blossoms and lush surroundings without much interest.
“Valerie,” a voice quietly spoke.
“Isenwald,” she said with relief upon hearing the speaker, turning around. She found him standing by one of the towers protruding from the inner wall, creating a corner. “I was not certain you could come,” Valerie said, joining him in the shadows.
“My father – is too busy being furious that his title – is jarl and not lord protector,” Isenwald said with a smile.
“Is it very terrible?” Valerie asked concerned.
“My brother has excused himself to the Citadel,” Isenwald said, his smile becoming mirthless. “My uncle – is trying his best to rein my father – in. He – is the – only man brave enough to face the – Ironfist.”
“I am so sorry,” Valerie said, her face aching with sympathy.
“It – is not so bad for me,” Isenwald spoke light-heartedly. “My father rarely notices me. How – is yours taking – it?”
“He is more serene about the matter,” Valerie told him. “I think he is just as happy with his books and numbers.”
“And you will have the prince as your guest,” Isenwald said.
“Imagine how that will be,” Valerie wondered. “But Valcaster is very pretty in the summer, I am certain he will enjoy it. I wish you could see it too,” she added longingly.
“Perhaps – one day,” Isenwald suggested. “When are you returning?”
“One week, two weeks,” Valerie said, shrugging at the uncertainty. “Depends on how long my father’s affairs take to settle. Fortunately there are many of those.”
“It will be harder to get letters to Valcaster,” Isenwald said. “That reminds me, this – is for you,” he added, taking several folded sheets of parchment from his belt.
“And for you,” Valerie said smiling, accepting his letter while giving him a stack of paper in return. “Something to read before we can meet again.”
“I shall treasure each – of your words,” Isenwald said tenderly, which caused slight blushing and made Valerie look away shyly.
“I think my father will find it odd if I come here again tomorrow though,” Valerie warned.
“The Temple?” Isenwald offered. “We can meet by the basin – inside the complex.”
“I shall go to prayer tomorrow just after noon bell,” Valerie said.
“I will count the moments – of every – hour until then,” Isenwald promised.
This caused another smile to emerge on Valerie’s lips. She hesitated and put her lips to use against Isenwald’s cheek for a brief moment. The audacity of her action made her almost stumble away backwards. She hurried away with eyes lowered, leaving the heir of Isarn standing dumbfounded; as he followed the golden-haired maiden with his eyes, his hand traced the spot on his cheek.
Isenwald waited until Valerie was long gone before he too stepped out of the shadows under the tower. He hastened away and did not see the sister of the jarl of Theodstan sitting in the shade of a pavilion close by. She on the other hand kept her eyes on the young man until he disappeared out of the gardens. Then, with a good-natured laugh, Theodwyn rose and returned to her chambers.
Athelstan had been spending the days since the Adalthing at the estate of the House of Isarn, and so he arrived last at the war council summoned by the lord marshal. The latter and the knight marshal, Sir Roderic, were naturally present as the appointed leaders of the Order. Sir William of Tothmor was the third person in the room. As with Athelstan, he did not have an official rank in the Order other than knight. However, he had won fame in the Order’s war in Heohlond, and he was an obvious choice as commander in any upcoming campaigns, just as was the case for Athelstan. In fact, all men in the room apart from the lord marshal had gained their reputation as warriors and captains during the highland rebellion.
“Sir Athelstan, welcome,” the lord marshal said gruffly and pointed towards a seat. The council chamber was in fact just a small, oval room with a round table in the middle and chairs around. Directly onto the table was painted a map. It was otherwise completely austere and had only one advantage to it; there were no windows and only very thick walls surrounding it, which made eavesdropping very difficult.
“Forgive my lateness,” the knight began to say, but his superior dismissed him with a wave.
“Never mind, let us begin. The beacon at Wyrmpeak was lit last night,” Reynold said, looking expectantly at the knight marshal, who had the general responsibility for the Order inside the realm of Adalrik.
“Indeed. A bird arrived from the beacon keeper, confirming this is not a mistake. Sometime during the night, the beacon further east was lit,” Roderic explained.
“And since it was Wyrmpeak, we know it is eastern Hæthiod that sent the warning,” William said quickly with a tone of voice that indicated he desired things sped up.
“Yes, yes, as I was about to say,” Roderic spoke, slightly irritated. “We must assume at least some of the garrisons at the Langstan have fallen. If they are truly arriving in force, it seems likely that Tothmor would be their target.”
“Any cities in southern Hæthiod that might attract them?” asked Reynold.
“None that offer even half of what Tothmor does,” William said, who himself hailed from the capital of Hæthiod. “Not even Lakon.”
“Are we certain this is an actual invasion and not merely a larger raiding force mistaken for more than it is?” asked Athelstan.
In response, William rose slightly to lean forward and point at the map. “Normally raiders cross in the north through the mountains where they might circumvent the Langstan entirely, or they attempt to cross the Langstan in secrecy, unnoticed. If they have taken the wall and slain the garrisons, it speaks of greater plans than merely killing livestock and stealing farmers’ produce.”
“How large is the garrison in Tothmor?” asked the lord marshal.
“If I recall correctly, my lord, a score of knights. A few thousand footmen, about half that in archers.”
“If this truly is an invasion,” the knight marshal interjected, “we have to conscript the local nobility and have them raise their levies. We have the right to do so in such a situation as this.”
“And unlike Heohlond, we do not have to doubt their loyalty,” the lord marshal remarked with a mutter, which none of the other men in the room commented upon.
“How many men from Hæthiod might we rely upon with such a conscription?” Athelstan asked, moving the conversation along.
“A few hundred riders,” William guessed. “We will probably double our number of footmen and archers. Triple the number of archers even if we not only raise the levies, but we also recruit among the farmers.”
“We will,” Reynold nodded. “The more longbowmen we have, the better. Their arrows should do well against the blackboots’ leather armour. What forces do we have available in Adalrik before we mobilise any?”
“About half a thousand knights in Middanhal alone. Some three thousand footmen and attached archers if we include the city guard,” answered Roderic.
“Do you intend to muster in Adalrik?” asked Athelstan.
“I think it will be necessary,” Reynold contemplated, leaning forward and letting his eyes glance over the map. “We cannot withdraw forces from Heohlond, and Vidrevi has been lacklustre in its contributions to the Order. When this campaign is over, I will have to go there myself and speak with the marshal,” Reynold said brusquely.
“Ealond can contribute much, though,” Roderic said. “Both soldiers as well as supplies. Korndale may not have much, but it can always send supplies as well.”
“Have letters written,” Reynold nodded. “Let the marshals of Korndale and Ealond know they are to send what they have available to Hæthiod.”
“I will, my lord,” Roderic promised. “Perhaps we do not need to perform additional mobilisation, however. We do not know the numbers we face. It is quite possible our standing forces, once all gathered in Hæthiod, will be adequate. Beginning a mobilisation in Adalrik that might turn out unnecessary is very expensive.”
“Always the damn coin,” Reynold snorted. “Very well. I will depart with the vanguard and send back word if conscription is necessary.”
“You intend to lead the campaign personally?” Athelstan asked cautiously.
“That is why we have the knight marshal,” Reynold said brusquely, “so the Order’s affairs are tended to in Adalrik while I am gone from the realm.”
“Of course, my lord,” Athelstan said quickly, “I am well aware that the Order’s campaigns in the past have often been personally led by the lord marshal. I merely thought with your appointment as lord protector…”
“That is why Sir Roderic is also dragonlord,” Reynold dismissed Athelstan’s concerns.
“As you say, my lord,” Athelstan muttered.
“Very well then. I will depart tomorrow, taking the five hundred knights with me as vanguard, and raise the levies in Hæthiod. Sir William, you will accompany me as my first lieutenant. You know the land and the people.”
“As you say, my lord,” the young knight said, bowing his head in acquiescence.
“Sir Roderic, you prepare the rest of the army and supply train for a proper campaign.”
“My lord,” Roderic replied, bowing his head as well.
“The infantry will follow under your leadership once prepared, Sir Athelstan.”
“My lord,” Athelstan said, obeying as the others. “And my first lieutenant?”
“Take Sir Richard of Alwood. The common soldiers will enjoy that, being led by a champion.”
“Very well, my lord. May I have a few knights at my disposal? My nephew, for instance.”
“A few knights more or less is of little consequence,” Reynold said with a disinterested tone. “Whomever you wish.” The four knights rose with the war council concluded, each leaving to make his own preparations.
Athelstan moved through the Citadel and knocked on the quarters belonging to the Arnling siblings. Brand himself opened the door and let the knight inside. “A pleasure, my lord,” Brand said as they took seats. “What brings you by?”
“Your sister is not here?”
“At the Temple with the sister of Jarl Theodoric. Did you come to see her?”
“Not at all,” Athelstan shook his head. “I only have some news for you, and it is better this way. You can tell her yourself once I am gone.”
This made Brand lean forward. “Should I expect fair or poor tidings?”
“Depends on your own thoughts,” Athelstan responded. “You know about the beacon being lit, I assume?”
“Whole city knows,” Brand shrugged. “Even if half the city did not know yesterday there was a beacon on Wyrmpeak.”
“The Order is being mustered,” Athelstan said.
“I thought as much,” Brand claimed. “We are sent to Hæthiod?”
Athelstan nodded. “We are, though not straight away. The lord marshal will take the knights available and ride ahead of the army. I am to lead the remainder once supplies and provisions are in order.”
“When do you expect us to leave?”
“Depends on what news reach us from Hæthiod. If our standing forces are sufficient, we will leave in some days. If we are to muster additional forces and bring our full strength, it may be weeks.” Athelstan hesitated before he continued. “I am afraid that this means we must delay your knighting ceremony.”
“Because we will be on the road to Hæthiod before I am twenty-one,” Brand nodded in understanding.
“If it is a short campaign, we may be back in Middanhal before year’s end. If not, we will find a shrine in Hæthiod, probably Tothmor, and see it done,” Athelstan promised Brand.
“It is no matter,” Brand said, raising his hands. “I am not concerned with the trappings, only to step fully into the Order.”
“You will before the year is over,” Athelstan reiterated.
“And I will get a chance to earn my spurs as well on the field,” Brand added.
“That as well, though do not be too hasty,” Athelstan cautioned him. “Young and eager men perish easily in battle.”
“I thought those were the tenets of a knight,” Brand argued. “In war a knight is fearless,” he quoted from the Knight’s Codex.
“True,” Athelstan said with hesitation, “but there is more than that to being a knight. The Codex does not detail all a knight needs to know. Being a soldier for the Order can be – complicated.”
“As you say,” Brand said without sounding convinced.
“I will send for you when we are to depart, whenever that may be. I merely wanted to break the news to you in person,” Athelstan said, standing up.
“I thank you for it,” Brand replied, bidding the knight farewell.
Not long after, Arndis returned and found her brother deep in thought in the parlour of their quarters. “Brand?” she said to gain his attention.
“Forgive me, my mind was elsewhere,” he said, finally looking up at her.
“So I can tell,” Arndis replied, taking a seat next to him. “What concerns weigh on you? Did the moneylenders seek you out again?”
“No, no,” Brand said, shaking his head. “Something else entirely. The Order is being sent on campaign into Hæthiod.”
“Ah,” Arndis merely said. When her brother did not continue, she did herself. “The rumours of war are true, I take it.”
“So it would seem. I am to follow Sir Athelstan, though he does not know when. A few days, a few weeks, somewhere in between.”
“I will be sad to see you leave.”
“And I will be sad to leave you alone, though I have no choice.”
“Of course,” Arndis nodded, “I am aware. I have friends here at court, I shall not be alone.”
“That is well. At least those coin grubbers will not chase after me all the way to Hæthiod,” Brand said, which made his sister chuckle half-heartedly.
“Do take care,” Arndis imprinted on him.
“Do not worry,” he said to soothe her. “I will be by Sir Athelstan’s side, and he will take command. I will have the safest position in the army.”
“I hope that is true,” Arndis said, biting her lip.
“Let me tell you something to ease your mind,” Brand said softly. “Have you heard of the battle of Cairn Donn?”
“I have heard of it, yes,” Arndis nodded. “But little more than the name.”
“Athelstan told me of it at times. No better source to hear the story from,” Brand smiled. “The Order army is shattered, a few thousand men fleeing towards Cairn Donn. Middle of winter in the highlands, freezing and starving. Hounded by rebel highlanders and the knowledge that if they do not reach Cairn Donn in time, the city is defenceless and will fall.”
“What happened?” Arndis asked, already captivated.
“The lord marshal is dead as is many of the other senior knights. Athelstan takes charge along with the few remaining knights such as Sir Theobald, the captain of the Citadel, or Sir Richard and Sir William, both solstice champions and both journeying with us to Hæthiod,” Brand pointed out. “For one of the flanks, Athelstan gives the impression it is weakly defended. It is inside a gorge, a bottleneck.”
On the table nearby stood a chessboard with its pieces. Brand grabbed it and arrayed the pawns to simulate the battlefield. “The highlanders storm against it to crush the ranks of the Orders,” he narrated. “They are pressed together, unable to use their numbers. All the remaining knights, excelling in close combat, defend the gorge and repel the attackers. Meanwhile, the Order infantry push forward unexpectedly on the other side to rout the enemy.” Brand looked up at his sister. “What should have been a certain defeat, Athelstan and these men turned into a resounding victory. So you see, there is no need to be concerned,” he smiled.
“If you say so,” Arndis conceded and stood up. “Come, we should both go to the Temple.”
“You just came from there,” Brand said questioningly.
“Yes, but it seems there is more I should pray for. We both should,” she said to her brother and entered her chamber, choosing a small piece of jewellery she might give as offering at the Temple in return for her brother’s safety.
As the evening bell tolled, Kate entered the library tower. Quill was carefully adding pen strokes to an open volume, so she did not disturb him. She merely fetched Song of Sigvard and took a seat at one of the desks; her attention seemed as much caught by the blank wall in front of her as by the book, however.
Time passed in silence until Quill finally spoke. “Something on your mind?” he asked without looking up.
“No, master,” Kate said absentmindedly.
“I merely ask because I have not heard you turn the page for a while now.”
“Oh. I guess my thoughts are a little scattered. There are all these rumours flying around the castle.”
“Rumours of invasion and war. Yes, they have reached my ears even all the way up here.”
“Are they true?”
“You think I have some form of knowledge or prescience? Do I look like a norn to you,” Quill said with a touch of dry laughter.
“You just seem to know so much and about everything,” Kate pointed out, giving up on her book and turning her attention to the scribe.
“There are limits,” Quill said, but he put down his feather pen and looked at Kate instead. “What is it you wish to know exactly?”
“Is there really going to be war?”
“It would seem so. But you probably really mean to ask, how will it matter for you if there is war?”
“I suppose,” Kate admitted, looking away.
“I think it will matter little for you. Few in this city will feel it. I doubt the war could ever reach so far from Hæthiod it would spill into Adalrik. Maybe salt will be harder to come by or be more expensive.”
“Well, nearly all the salt in this city comes from Hæthiod, so it may become scarcer. But those who will truly feel this war are the soldiers being sent away and the knights. And those to whom their bonds bind them. Their wives and children, who might be separated from their husbands and fathers for years to come.”
Quill nodded. “If it draws out. Though maybe it will be over in time for winter solstice. Right now, we do not know.”
“I’m glad I don’t know anybody who’s going,” Kate said.
“Then I suggest you put these thoughts out of your head and return to your book,” Quill said sternly, and she promptly obeyed.
Sir William of Tothmor, champion of the sword, hesitated slightly before he knocked on the door in one of the southern wings of the Citadel. This was where the low nobility living at court resided in single chambers with little luxury. The door was opened by a handmaiden. “It is Sir William, milady,” the servant announced to the young woman in the room.
“Sir William,” the woman said, rising to meet him.
“Lady Eleanor,” he said, bowing his head slightly. Being in his early thirties, he was about ten years older than the woman. She was ordinary in most respects with brown hair covered by a veil. She had put the veil down upon hearing the knock, but now she removed it again to reveal her face. It also showed her defining feature; while the right side of her face was unmarred, her left side was covered in faded scars and burns. “I apologise I was not present tonight to escort you to the Temple. I did not forget it was Rilday today,” William began by saying.
“Oh, going alone did not hurt me,” Eleanor said lightly, sitting down and picking up her needlework. “Besides, there is Rilday next week and the week afterwards.”
“That is why I wished to speak to you. Why I was absent this eve. Anne,” he said directed to the handmaiden, “let me speak privately with your lady.”
Anne bowed and retreated into the small alcove that was her bedchamber, pulling a curtain between which served as a door. Eleanor on the other hand let go of her needle and looked up, fixing her eyes on William. “You are leaving for war.”
“Yes,” William admitted. “Tomorrow with the vanguard.”
“So soon,” she said with a slight quiver in her voice.
“I fear so. We are going to Hæthiod, so the lord marshal desired my presence as his first lieutenant.”
“An honour for you,” Eleanor remarked.
“It is my duty, and I am glad to serve,” William said earnestly.
“I have no doubt you are,” Eleanor said, looking away.
“You will not lack anything in my absence, I hope?”
“Of course not,” Eleanor said dismissively. “Your prize money is still untouched. With my friends at court, I shall hardly know you are gone.”
“That is good to hear,” William said, sounding relieved.
“Really, Sir William, you need not worry. I ceased being your ward two years ago.”
“I am aware, of course,” the knight said. “I merely feel responsible since it was I who brought you here from Tothmor.”
“You are most kind,” Eleanor said with a vague smile, “but you have long since been absolved of your responsibilities for me. In fact you should not even spend your prize money on me.”
“I suppose I do not have to,” William said hesitantly. “But until you are married and have a husband to tend to such needs, I am glad to do so.”
“A husband. Yes,” Eleanor said quietly. “I thank you for telling me, Sir William. I will not keep you longer. I am certain you have many preparations to make.”
“I have,” William said, bowing his head in farewell. “Pray for me and our battles on next Rilday,” he said as he turned to leave.
“Always,” Eleanor said barely audible, watching the knight leave. She hurried to dry her eyes of any treacherous moisture before her handmaiden stepped back out of the alcove.
Close to nightfall and the last evening bell being rung, Nicholas from Tothmor walked with his bow staff and bag of belongings through Lowtown. He had spent the days following the solstice being regaled as champion of the bow in various parts of the city, but still he returned each evening to the humble tavern where he had first resided. Despite the tavern keeper’s willingness to find better accommodations for him, the archer had turned down such offers and was still sleeping in the stable.
“Master Nicholas!” shouted Gilbert, the host, as the man from Hæthiod entered the tavern. “Fancy a drink? There’s just time,” he tempted.
“Thank you, Master Gilbert, but I will be returning home tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you want that? They say bad things are coming to your homeland.”
“All the more reason I return. I best get what sleep I can,” Nicholas said, moving on.
“As you wish,” the barkeep said, bidding him good night.
Nicholas walked through the common room, out into the yard, and into the stable. The animals took little note of his presence, and he sat down in the haystack that served as his bed. Putting the bow staff away, he opened his bag and went through the things he had purchased at the market at the Temple square. Food for the journey home, a warmer cap for when colder days arrive, and certain oils he would be mixing to create the concoction he used to treat his bow staff. Hearing footsteps, he spoke without looking up. “Really, Master Gilbert, I am flattered, but I can’t –”
He was interrupted by a coarse voice. “You have something of mine.” As Nicholas looked up, he barely had time to see the shape of a man in front of him. Then he was struck on the side of his head by a staff, knocking him to the ground. As his eyes closed, sounds reached him of somebody rummaging through his things. “This as well,” the voice said, digging into Nicholas’ pockets and pulling out the ivory figurine he had won at the solstice games. Nicholas stretched out his hand feebly, trying to prevent the theft, but the mugger simply stepped down on his hand. A kick to the head followed, which made Nicholas’ consciousness lose its grasp on the surrounding world.
When he woke again, Nicholas was positioned more comfortably in the hay rather than on the stable floor. The maid serving in the tavern was cradling his head, pressing a wet rag against his forehead. “Master Nicholas,” came the concerned voice of the tavern keeper. “Are you well?”
“My head is pounding like an anvil,” Nicholas groaned.
“I am so sorry,” Gilbert said, wringing his hands. “None of us saw any enter! The tavern has just been so busy, and I can’t keep eye on the doors all the time, and –”
“Please, I believe you,” Nicholas said with difficulty, raising his hand. “Just be quiet.”
“Right, sorry,” Gilbert said with a lowered voice; then he left the stable while muttering the woes of ordinary folk being beset by banditry.
“You’ve got a nasty bump,” said the girl tending to his head.
“They took my silver,” Nicholas complained, stirring. “And my carving, my prize.”
“I’m so sorry,” the maid said sympathetically while gently keeping him from getting up. “But right now you should close your eyes. I told the cook to make some willow bark tea, and she’ll be here with it any moment.”
“Thanks,” Nicholas mumbled, leaning back. “Guess I’m not leaving here anyway. I can’t come home coinless.”
“Well, at least you’ll be staying a little while longer,” the girl said with a smile that Nicholas caught even with closed eyes.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ellen, good master,” she answered, caressing his head to soothe his pain.
“I’m Nicholas from Tothmor.”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling, “everybody here knows that.”