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Bated Breath

Middanhal

A period of mourning was announced, involving two days of prayer and offerings. On the second day, Rilday, the prince would be buried. It was early on the first day of mourning, Laugday, when the jarl of Theodstan sought entry to the knight marshal’s study. Sir Roderic, with the dual power as marshal and dragonlord of Adalrik, received him. “Jarl Theodoric, I recognise you,” Roderic said, “though I do not think we have ever been introduced.”

“We have not,” the jarl replied in a courteous tone of voice.

“I see you are dressed for mourning,” the marshal said, gesturing towards Theodoric’s attire.

The jarl looked down upon his black tunic. “This is what I always wear,” he said and moved the conversation forward. “I am here because I think you should raise the levies and bring them under Order command.”

“The lord marshal has every intention of doing that once he reaches Hæthiod,” Roderic answered.

“No, I mean here in Adalrik. Have the jarls muster their men, the landgraves too.”

“Sir Reynold warned me of this,” Roderic said, leaning back in his seat.

“Warned you of what?” Theodoric asked confused.

“That you would seek to interfere. That you have not forgotten the years wearing this ring.” Roderic underlined his claim by touching the ring of the dragonlord upon his finger.

“That is an absurd notion,” Theodoric denied.

“Yet here you are,” the knight marshal simply replied.

“Listen to me. Some of the other jarls are still unhappy with the Adalthing. Where it was my design, I might add, that lead to you wearing that ring,” the jarl insisted.

“An office I take most seriously and where I will keep my own counsel, thank you,” Roderic replied.

“If the threat from the outlanders is as great as rumoured, the jarls’ armies will do much to bolster the Order. And with their armies sent abroad, they will be disinclined to stir trouble in Adalrik.”

“And would you gladly call for conscription in your own jarldom, my lord?”

“If all were to do so, yes,” Theodoric claimed in reply. “Not as the only one. The other jarls would suspect me of schemes.”

“And you never scheme, clearly,” Roderic said with a sardonic smile. “I can tell you that the other jarls would do no such thing gladly. The tax they pay to support the Order already chafes at them. In my years in the Order, I recall a dozen Adalthings where they attempted to have it reduced.”

“I am aware,” Theodoric said curtly. “I was often present.”

“If I now add to that by demanding that they raise their levies, outfit them, and send them abroad, they would truly grow discontent. Worse, they might refuse! And with all my soldiers departing for Hæthiod, how am I to force them to do anything?”

“They would not dare refuse a direct order,” Theodoric claimed.

“Yet if I do nothing they will dare to stir trouble, as you put it? No, my lord, that does not ring true. I tread a fine balance keeping you jarls appeased, and I require no counsel. If you wish to help me, you may leave me in peace to pursue my work.” Seeing no signs in the knight marshal’s expression that he might be persuaded otherwise, Theodoric left the chamber.

~~~~

“Brother, what does this mean?” asked Arndis, biting her lip. She was sitting down, while Brand was pacing about. The siblings had both retreated to their quarters in refuge from the sounds of sorrow permeating the castle. Arndis’ handmaiden was in her alcove, crying.

“The realms are without an obvious heir. As far as I know that has never happened before. Who knows what it means?” Brand shrugged, though his expression was far less casual than his gesture. “The House of Adal is gone. Its eldest line, in any case. I suspect in the end the jarls will decide on something. Absent a king, they rule.”

“I meant what does this mean for us? We are dragonborn. Your own name proclaims it.”

“I doubt the jarls care about us, or that any others do, for that matter. I may have overestimated the importance of our colours when I returned to Adalrik. It has brought me neither influence nor position,” Brand smiled without mirth.

“I heard a rumour,” Arndis said, her voice not entirely steady. “Some say the line of Sigvard is cursed. The prince slain, his father slain, the old king – they say that after the death of his son, he grew mad with grief. ‘The King of Grief’, they call him still.”

“I was not here, I would not know if he did,” Brand said and sat down next to his sister. “Come now, talk of curses is an offence to us. If I hear any speak thus, I will have his tongue.”

“I am not frightened by what they say, I am frightened if it is true. Father was not much more fortunate than you,” Arndis pointed out.

“I fear the reasons for that are far more ordinary than involving a curse. No, Sister, the beauty of us having neither land nor wealth is that we are not important. The only people we are in danger from are the moneylenders,” Brand jested, though Arndis did not smile. “That reminds me, I will have to run an errand,” Brand added.

“What for?” Arndis asked.

“To borrow money and fetch the tailors. We will need black clothes.”

~~~~

It was not yet noon when Athelstan walked outside and found his brother tending to a falcon; the jarl of Isarn was well known for his birds of prey. Isenhart was carefully examining the feathers of the falcon when Athelstan came up to him. “I noticed that Cousin Athelbold was missing from the morning meal. I went to his room just now and found it empty of his belongings.”

“I have sent Athelbold north, home,” the jarl said, his attention on the falcon.

“Is that so? He will have to ride hard to return in time,” Athelstan said.

“Athelbold will not be here in time to observe the rites,” Isenhart told his brother.

“An odd time for sending him away,” Athelstan remarked with suspicion in his voice. “We should all show our respect when the prince is laid to rest.”

“Plenty of us will be there,” Isenhart said dismissively. “The House of Isarn shall be ready to bid the House of Adal farewell.”

“As you say,” Athelstan said. He was about to turn and walk away when Isenhart spoke again.

“The Order’s preparations – when are you leaving for Lake Myr?”

“I should have left already, actually,” Athelstan explained. “I only delay until the prince is laid to rest.”

“Do the remaining Order troops travel with you?”

“Not all,” Athelstan shook his head. “There are a few regiments coming from the north under Sir Fionn. They are the last that will depart for Hæthiod. But they will not be in Middanhal until Disday, I believe. Why do you ask?”

“Disday,” Isenhart said contemplatively, ignoring the question. “And they will depart the day after, I presume.”

“Presumably,” Athelstan said, less patiently. “Why this interest in the movements of the Order?”

“I intend to hold a memorial gathering for all the nobles of Adalrik in memory of Prince Sigmund,” the jarl explained. “It will be held on – Nilday, I think.”

“On the day the last Order troops depart Middanhal,” Athelstan commented. “Why this remarkable coincidence?”

“Because Adalrik, indeed all of Adalmearc is weakened, Brother,” Isenhart said, “and the duty falls to us to restore its strength, especially now in the absence of an heir. Come with me inside,” the jarl continued, returning the falcon to a nearby servant. “We have much to discuss.”

~~~~

The Citadel of Middanhal not only had many floors and tall towers, it also extended deep underground. Delved by Dwarves, rumour had it, though it was common practice to claim anything old was built or touched by Dwarves. The lower levels of the Citadel served several purposes. There were large reservoirs of water, some filled by the river and some kept separate in case a devious enemy might contaminate the river somehow. There were also large food stores, kept cool and renewed by each year’s harvest. While it might not feed the entire city’s population for too long, it could certainly feed the inhabitants of the Citadel for many years.

Deep in the dark was also the king’s treasury, built in a place with no windows and only one heavily guarded point of access. Furthermore, the intricate lock as well as the heavy doors into the treasury were, naturally, built by Dwarves and would remain unharmed even if the earth itself should sunder. Finally, there was one large room with a specific purpose, kept in the far end opposite the food stores. It was the Hall of the Honoured Dead.

As with most other rooms underground, the hall was vaulted to increase the effect of remaining cold even in summertime. It did not store food, water, or gold, however, but bodies. This was not their final resting place; the hall contained nothing other than hundreds of empty stone slabs. Each was large enough for several men to be placed upon them if necessary. At the other end of the hall was one slab raised, intended for those of higher rank. This was a temporary place to store the dead that for some reason could not be buried immediately. In wartime, especially during a siege, hundreds or thousands of soldiers might die defending the city, and burial would not be possible until the siege ended. Or in the case of royalty, the artisans would need time to finish fashioning the sarcophagus. While the tomb had been prepared for some time when old King Sighelm died, the guilds had not been as foreseeing in the case of Prince Sigmund.

The eleven-year-old boy now lay on the raised slab. He had the dark locks and pale skin of the Sigvard blood, even paler now in death. The norns had washed his body and treated it with their oils, which slowed decay; if necessary, he could have been left in the cold hall for weeks or months to little effect. He was wearing dark blue clothes, new fabric unstained by blood. On his chest, with his small hands clasped around the hilt, was his sword; it was little more than a long dagger to a grown man. Unlike many other things in the city, the sword was with certainty made by Dwarves, quite recently too; it had been a gift for his tenth birthday.

The prince was not alone in the hall, but the other person was breathing and still had warmth. It was his mother, the lady Isabel, princess of Hæthiod, widow, and now childless as well. There were no chairs or indeed any furniture of any kind except the biers, permanent and made from stone unlike the cloak that had carried Sigmund back to Middanhal. So Isabel stood, occasionally letting her hand touch cold cheek, brushing a few hairs one way or the other, or disturbing the pose of his hands by gently placing her own on top.

The sound of footsteps marred her reverie; although soft, even the slightest vibration resounded in the sombre stone hall. “Lady Isabel?” a voice spoke. It was Elis, the former dragonlord. The woman did not reply, so Elis continued to approach her. “I am told you have not left this hall since yesterday,” Elis added, but still no reply came. “My lady, you need to rest. And eat. Somewhere else.”

“What does it matter,” Isabel said tonelessly.

“It matters to me,” Elis said, cautiously moving closer. “I would not see you waste away.”

“They killed my boy,” Isabel spoke, her voice still monotonous. “My husband was not enough for them. They had to take my child as well.”

“And a terrible thing it is,” Elis said soothingly, placing his hand on her shoulder, “but you should not follow them.”

She in turn merely leaned over the prince’s body, facing away. “I lived for my boy,” she whispered. “He would have made such a strong, great king. What do I have to live for now?”

“I am still by your side,” Elis began to speak.

“You! You were supposed to control the Adalthing. You were supposed to safeguard my son’s future! Look what happened,” she said, glaring furiously at him before turning her gaze back to her son.

“I understand your anger,” Elis said slowly, “but I am not responsible for your son’s death. If you need a reason to live, then consider revenge against those who are truly responsible.”

“And do you know whose arrow did this? Can you tell me the man that shed my son’s blood?” Isabel asked pointedly, placing her hand above Sigmund’s throat where the arrow had pierced his skin.

“I do not know by what hand that arrow was loosened. But I know by whose command,” Elis said, which made Isabel look back at him. “Who made Sigmund leave the city, leave the protection of the Citadel? With the heir to the realms gone, who stands to gain? Who is now undisputedly the most powerful man in the kingdom?” Elis asked.

“Vale,” Isabel whispered. “Vale,” she hissed.

“Do not forget Theodstan,” Elis added. “This was his design as well.”

“I will forget none of them,” Isabel swore.

“You are not alone, my lady. We will not let them escape justice,” Elis said, once more touching Isabel’s shoulder. She turned to gaze at her son again but did not shake his hand off.

~~~~

At the Vale residence, there were extra guards at the gate. The day had gone without incident and the first evening bell had rung, but the inhabitants of the estate still felt the pressure of the city upon them; none dared guess at what the night might bring. While the streets in many other parts of the city were filled with mourners, they were empty in the north-eastern district; the nobles of Adalrik stayed indoors behind their walls and with their guards and servants surrounding them. Thus, it was easy to both see and hear a single rider swiftly coming up the Arnsweg from the Temple square. Some of the archers on the outer wall of the Vale estate prepared arrows while the soldiers at the ground readied their spears.

As the rider approached, the guards saw his cloak flowing red and gold behind him before they recognised his face and hurried to open the gate. Without slowing down, the rider galloped past them and into the courtyard where his horse collapsed; he himself elegantly managed to get out of the saddle and stand while his horse sank to the ground. Alarmed by the commotion, the jarl, his daughter, and his nephew came out of the house, one after the other. “Konstans,” Valerian said astonished upon recognising his brother. “I only sent a message yesterday. How can you already be here?”

“News reached Valcaster before any birds from Middanhal did,” Konstans explained. “I left several days ago. Took a galley up the river to Coldharbour and rode two –” he paused and looked at the horse next to him “– three horses to death to get here.”

“Alone?” Valerian said in shock.

“Some thanes were with me, but their horses were slow,” Konstans remarked. “I abandoned them somewhere between Coldharbour and here.”

“You made it in time, Father,” Konstantine said. “The burial is tomorrow.”

“Good,” Konstans nodded. “Afterwards, we have to start making plans.”

“What plans?” asked Valerie.

“Our family is at stake,” Konstans told her. “But in every tragedy there is opportunity. We must find some way to turn this to our advantage.”

“It seems cruel,” Valerie said quietly. “The prince has not even been laid to rest yet.”

“Cold-hearted, perhaps,” Konstans admitted. “But our adversaries will not be lying idle, nor can we afford to do so.”

“Come inside,” Valerian said, placing his hand on his brother’s shoulder and leading him indoors. “Get some wine, catch your breath, and we will talk. You as well, Konstantine, you might as well be there.” The jarl, his brother, and his nephew walked inside while Valerie remained outside, watching the stable hands remove the carcass of Konstans’ steed.

~~~~

In the kitchens of the Citadel, there was the usual hustle and bustle associated with feeding hundreds of people every day. With the first evening bell having rung a while ago, however, the evening meal was finishing, and the kitchen servants were concluding the day’s business. Food was packed away, though most helped themselves to a few servings when Cook’s watchful eyes were elsewhere. Pots, pans, and plates were scrubbed clean and put aside.

When the activity simmered down and the day’s chores were close to done, Kate washed her hands and face, went to the room she shared with the other kitchen girls and changed into a clean dress. She returned to the kitchen, walking towards the exit when Cook’s sharp voice stopped her. “Where are you off to?” she demanded to know.

“Work is done, it’s not your business,” Kate said just as sharply.

“You’re my responsibility when you work in my kitchen,” Cook retorted.

“If you must know, I was going to the Temple,” Kate replied reluctantly.

“It’s a bad night for going out,” Cook said brusquely. “Especially for young girls.”

“I’m just going straight to the shrine. For Idisea,” Kate clarified. “Then I’ll be back in the castle.” She showed her hand, which contained a silver mark, several days’ pay for a kitchen girl.

Cook’s features softened slightly. “Well, come straight back then. I don’t like you being outside the castle after evening bell. And we have a long day tomorrow, lots to do. You better be sharp and awake, girl.”

“I will be,” Kate promised, and Cook released her to go to the Temple, leave her offering and say her prayers for the dead prince like so many other commoners had done and would do in these days.

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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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