City of Daggers
In the third district, a young man stepped out of the temple of Egnil not long after dawn. His religious duties having been observed, he walked back to the gate and up to the second district, home to most of the nobility of Tothmor. His clothes were tailored with an expensive cut, but they were also worn. The youth entered a house that likewise had seen better days with weeds overtaking the surrounding gardens. There were no guards, and the door was unlocked and unattended by any servants. The young man threw his cloak from him and walked through the empty rooms. Layers of dust and filth covered the floors and austere furniture on his way as he walked through the house to reach its sparring hall. Sounds of movement and physical exertion soon reached him.
“Father?” the young man called out as he stepped inside.
“I am here, boy,” replied a voice belonging to a man in his fifties or sixties. He was wearing a leather jerkin and had a sword in hand with which he was punishing a wooden training doll.
“I am home again, Father,” he said. The older man did not interrupt his movements but merely issued a confirming sound from his throat. “I was at the temple,” the son continued. “It is early for you to be training your swordsmanship.”
“Up at dawn,” the older man said, his sword striking the dummy with precision. “Every day.”
“Still? I told you that is not necessary.”
“Today it is of all days. The beacons were lit last night.”
“Yes, so I have heard. But it sounds like mere rumour,” the youth declared.
“I saw it myself, awake in the night. They would not light the beacons for no cause. I must be prepared if the call goes out.”
“You are not in the royal guard anymore. They will not make demands of you.”
“I am still a man of rank, Hugh,” his father replied, changing stance and beginning a new routine of attack. “I must be prepared.”
“Nobody will demand that of you, Father,” Hugh reiterated. “You do not have to be so worried.”
“I am not worried, merely vigilant. I am Lord Hubert, count of Esmarch, and it is my duty to be on guard,” he spoke, his focus remaining on his wooden opponent; not once had he turned and looked at his son.
“Of course, Father,” said his son more quietly. “Keep your vigilance. Everything will be better soon, I promise.” He did not receive a reply to this, so Hugh turned and left his father alone.
Leaving the house, Hugh walked through the second district until he reached the gate leading into the first. As he approached, a guard stepped into his way. “What’s your business in the inner circle?” he demanded to know, using a colloquial expression for the first district.
“I have been granted an audience with the steward of the palace,” Hugh told them, producing a letter from inside his tunic. His words made both the guards size him up.
“Are you sure you have thought that through?” one guard asked with a raised eyebrow directed at Hugh’s slightly shabby clothes while the other examined the letter that Hugh had brought with him.
“It is all I have been thinking of,” Hugh replied. “I am Hugh, son of Count Esmarch.”
The guards exchanged looks. “Esmarch,” one of them scoffed.
“Check him for weapons,” the other nodded to his comrade, who did as asked. Hugh had to surrender the knife in his belt, which the soldier lay aside, but was otherwise found to be unarmed.
“Watch yourself in there,” the guard told him brusquely. “Attend to your errand and be gone again.”
Hugh gave a grimace in response before he stepped forward. On his right, the path led up to the small keep belonging to the Order. On his left were various storehouses and servant quarters. Straight ahead, through lush gardens in clear contrast to the bleak heaths that surrounded the city, was the royal palace. It had once been built as a castle when Tothmor had been much smaller and it only consisted of the first district. Now the old city walls served to keep people out, and the Order keep was all that really remained of defensive structures inside the inner circle; it had been a watch tower for the original structure, now expanded and refitted for the Order’s needs. Ignoring left and right, Hugh continued directly forward.
He passed various armed men; unlike the city guards wielding spears, these had swords and plated armour above their mail shirts. They were the royal guards, keeping extensive watch around the gardens to safeguard the queen and her closest family such as her mother or her aunt, the lady Irene. Several of them were patrolling around the palace; at one point, Hugh stopped and hid from them. Rather than continue deeper into the palace, where one would expect to find the steward, Hugh diverted. He reached the rose gardens of the palace, where none of the soldiers were within immediate vicinity; nor were any courtiers, servants, or such to be found. This particular section was empty apart from a young girl strolling in solitude.
She was some sixteen years of age and dressed richly; her brown curls framed a pretty face and were eloquently set with a diadem that proclaimed her rank in Hæthiod.
“Your Majesty,” Hugh called out as softly as he could without alerting others that might be within hearing distance.
The girl turned around sharply and sent him a scowling look. “Who are you? Everybody knows I am to be left alone here,” Theodora said slightly shrill. “Now leave before I have the guards throw you out!”
“Just a moment of your time, please,” the youth said. “I am Hugh, son of –”
“I do not care!” Theodora exclaimed. “Leave!”
Without a word, Hugh ran forward and the queen backed a few steps to the side with an expression of growing fear. Then he was past her, and as she turned her head, she saw what had spurred him. A cloaked man with his hood up was fast approaching and had almost reached the queen; in his hand was a flash of steel. The unarmed Hugh reached out and tried to wrest the dagger from the unknown assailant; his reward was a gash across his stomach before the dagger fell down on the paved path between the flowerbeds.
“Guards, guards!” Theodora yelled while she walked backwards, putting distance between herself and the attacker without taking her eyes off him. This apparently discouraged him to such a degree that he turned and fled, disappearing out of sight. Soldiers arrived on the scene, moving with obvious threat towards Hugh. “Not him!” Theodora cried out. “He ran! That way!” she pointed out, and they took up the chase. Then she turned to look at Hugh, who was pressing a bloodied hand against his stomach. “You need a physician,” she said more gently, to which he nodded with gritted teeth.
With the sun slowly rising in the east, Godfrey blinked as its light reached above the city walls and into his eyes. Turning to the barrel by his side, he heard the same snore he had heard all night. Planting his staff in front of him, Godfrey leaned one hand against the wall that had supported his back through the night and stood up. He walked a short distance down the street until he reached a small tavern. Due to the early hour, the common room was empty of people save for one man making preparations for the day.
“Gods’ peace to you and your house, Guy,” Godfrey said, attracting the other man’s attention.
“Geoffrey!” exclaimed the proprietor as he pushed a barrel of beer into place. In his late thirties, he had an ordinary appearance except in one regard; a large scar ran across his face, starting from the cheek and crossing his nose. “When did you arrive in town? Just now?”
“Yesterday, in fact,” Godfrey explained.
“You did not stay with me?” asked Guy puzzled.
“I was delayed,” Godfrey said while slanting his head. “In fact I have not slept much. We may talk later, but for now I could use a bed.”
“Go inside the back, take mine,” Guy offered. “I will not be needing it for a while. It will give me time to set something proper up for you.”
“You are too kind,” Godfrey said and dug out the purse given to him by the high priest of Rihimil.
“Oh no, you cannot pay me,” Guy protested, waving his hands.
“It is not my money,” Godfrey shrugged. “Besides, I do not know how long I will be staying, and I will require some meals occasionally,” he added, placing several coins on the counter before he continued past Guy through a door leading into the back. He located the aforementioned bed and dropped his staff to lie down in it, cloak and sword and everything.
While Godfrey slept, the tavern slowly began to receive its first customers for the day. Some were from the city, others were travellers from beyond; some came for food, some came for drink. As noon approached, a man entered, wearing a tunic and cloak in strong colours, a bright red cap with a feather in it, and with a six-stringed lute in his hands.
“Troy!” yelled out a youth sitting by one of the tables before he rose to greet the bard. He had a cup of wine in each hand, and his slightly unsteady movements suggested he had sampled their contents. The bard crossed the room to stand opposite his friend.
“Leander, how much have you had to drink?”
“Well, I ordered two cups of wine for us. Then I could not remember which was which, so I drank them both,” Leander explained. His easy manner and rich attire made him stand out, not only from every other patron in the tavern but also from the entirety of the lower circle. “Not to worry, I already had them refilled,” he added with an attempt of a cunning expression.
“You shouldn’t this early,” Troy chastised him. “Not to mention you were gone when I came to find you at the palace.”
“You took so long,” Leander shrugged, which made the liquid in the cups threaten to spill. “I was thirsty, and I knew you would find me. Eventually.”
“How about we sit down first,” Troy suggested, which Leander did precariously. “I had some affairs to tend to. And when I could not find you, I spent a few moments at the shrine of Egnil to give my offerings as any good minstrel should.”
“Did Egnil reward you with any morsel of skill, or do you still sound like a sheep with indigestion?”
“Not even all the divines could give you the skill for making jests,” Troy retorted, grabbing one of the cups out of Leander’s hand. “Besides, you missed a most exciting spectacle at the palace.”
“Do not tell me that Irene had somebody decapitated,” Leander said drunkenly before emptying the remaining cup.
“No, this did not involve the lady Irene,” Troy said, accentuating her title that Leander had left out. “There was an attempt made on the queen’s life.”
“Is Theodora hurt?” Leander said with sudden sharpness.
“No, she was saved by some youngster, I do not know him. I did not see it myself, but I saw the attacker! Before he fled,” Troy explained.
“He fled? Where did this happen?” Leander asked, relaxing again.
“In the rose gardens,” Troy elaborated. “But I was inside the palace. He came running down the hall, pushed me aside, and vanished. It was only afterwards when guards appeared that I understood who he was.”
“How could he escape?” Leander wondered, his voice growing thick and slurred again. “The guards usually swarm over those gardens like bees.” He added his best impression of the sound of the honey-gathering insect to his statement. “Bees.”
“Nobody knows,” Troy shrugged. “But it was most exciting. Worthy to be made into a song, perhaps.”
“Or a toast!” Leander suddenly exclaimed, standing up without warning. Realising his cup was empty, he reached out and grabbed hold of Troy’s; unfortunately, as he snatched the cup towards himself, it was emptied. The wine splattered across the table next to them where three men were seated.
They were snow gatherers who ventured to the top of Mount Tothmor, where they gathered the ever-snow and brought it back, selling it to the wealthy as means of keeping beverages cool in the summer; an occupation that either bred the tough or broke the weak. The mountain men rose slowly but with furious eyes, and the tavern fell quiet as everybody became aware of what was brewing. Guy, the tavern owner, rushed forward to intervene. “Please, this was an accident. No need to be rash.”
“Rash? And who will repay me for this insult?” said the man whose hair and clothes were soaked with wine. As he pulled up the sleeves on his shirt, he displayed his forearms that could rival a Dwarf’s.
“Excuse me, who will repay me for my wine,” Leander countered, dangling the empty cup in front of the three miners. “If you intend to bathe in it, I expect to be compensated,” he said with a grin.
Before further words could be exchanged, the largest of the three men made a fist and struck squarely on Leander’s jaw. He in turn flew backwards several steps, stumbled for a moment, and swung around as he fell, landing flat on his stomach. “This is Lord Leander,” Troy winced as the three men made to advance upon the fallen youth. “He is the king’s son!”
“The king’s bastard, you mean,” one of the snow gatherers said, narrowing his eyes. “Well, the king’s been dead for years, which makes him just a bastard.”
“What is all this noise?” Godfrey demanded to know as he appeared in the frame of the back door. “I am here to sleep.”
“None of your business,” said the mountain man brusquely who had thrown the punch.
Godfrey’s eyes quickly darted between the men, Guy’s frantic expressions, and Leander lying on the floor with his face against the floorboards. Godfrey squatted and grabbed hold of Leander’s hair to pull the youth’s head up, looking into eyes that were out of focus. Frowning for a moment, Godfrey made his decision as he let go of Leander’s head. “This is the end of it. Go somewhere else,” he told the three burly men.
“Or what?” one of them replied with obvious threat. Godfrey rose and pulled the edge of his cloak back to reveal the sword hanging by his left side, which gave the belligerent men pause. A sword was a weapon of skill and training, denoting both in one who wore such a weapon; some nobles might be an exception to this, but a sword was too expensive for a man of common appearance like Godfrey to own unless he knew how to use it. Exchanging looks, the mountain men growled but left.
“Thank you, Geoffrey,” the tavern owner said to Godfrey.
“I shall compose a song in your honour,” Troy said gratefully, already moving towards his lute.
“Right now I just need silence,” Godfrey said, waving his hand to dismiss their gratitude before returning to bed.
On the floor, Leander stirred, getting to his feet. “What happened?” the youth asked the bard.
“Once more your luck proved greater than your lack of wit,” Troy told Leander. He reached for one of the cups of wine only to be reminded that they were empty. “You are paying for next round too,” the bard said to the bastard.
Inside the palace, certain chambers were set aside for the royal physician. There were rooms acting as living quarters for him, a place where he could create his poultices and potions, and one where he examined his patients; except for the royal family, of course, in which case he would come to them. Since it was Hugh and not Theodora who had been injured, the youth had gone to the physician’s chambers, and Theodora had followed to oversee his treatment.
“It is not a deep cut,” the old sage said after having cleansed the wound and checked the bleeding. “You were fortunate indeed. It will not require stitches, merely that you rest and allow it time to heal. I will put a poultice upon it to keep away infection.”
“Thank you, Brother Laurence,” Theodora said. Like all respected physicians, Laurence was a lay brother of the priesthood of Idisea, evidenced by a thin silver chain around his neck with a raven pendant. While the priestesses themselves dealt with birth, death, and certain elements of sick care and only women could join their priesthood, they educated many men in the arts of healing to serve as lay brothers and alleviate their obligations to care for the sick.
“Yes, thank you indeed,” Hugh reiterated, who was sitting on a table so that the lay brother could inspect him. Laurence gave a throat noise to indicate it was nothing before cleaning the last few blood drops that had trickled from Hugh’s wound, and then he turned towards his mortars and powders. The patient let his shirt and doublet drop down to cover his torn skin and protect his modesty, though the wound was still visible where the fabric had been slashed.
“Theodora!” The owner of the voice immediately burst into the room; it was a woman in her early forties, followed by the lady Irene, the unofficial regent of Hæthiod.
“I am fine, Mother,” the young queen said as the younger of the women rushed over to grab her daughter’s hands.
“Lady Beatrice,” Hugh said, getting up to greet the mother of the queen. He placed one hand above his wound where his shirt and doublet was torn, wincing slightly from the effort. “Lady Irene,” he said slightly strained, greeting the regent.
“And you are?” Irene asked coldly.
“This is Hugh, dear aunt,” Theodora quickly replied. “He came between me and the attacker. He saved me.”
“Son of Count Esmarch, at your service,” Hugh added, bowing with a grimace.
“Count Esmarch?” Beatrice said questioningly.
“Is that so,” Irene replied with an ounce of suspicion.
“In any case, we are most grateful for your presence,” Beatrice hurried to add whilst still clasping her daughter’s hands.
“It was my pleasure to serve my queen,” Hugh answered, smiling at both Beatrice as well as Theodora. “Has the attacker been apprehended?”
“Not yet,” Irene said, her voice remaining cold. “It is only a matter of time.”
“You will increase the guard surrounding Her Majesty, I take it?” Hugh ventured to say.
“Yes, thank you,” Irene said with enough sharpness to cut silk. “It will be taken care of.”
“I do not wish to speak out of place,” Hugh began to say.
“Then do not,” Irene said with an acerbic tone, but Hugh continued to speak directed at Theodora.
“My father guarded your uncle, the king,” Hugh told her. “While I know such honour is beyond my bounds, it was my privilege to aid you in the same manner.”
“Thank you,” Irene said with a tone of voice that directed attention back to her. “We have it well in hand. Come, Theodora, Beatrice, let us leave Brother Laurence to his work.” Upon her command, the other women in the room followed her outside, though Theodora had time to cast a lingering glance and smile at Hugh, which he returned. Behind the patient, Laurence mumbled to himself as he prepared the poultice for Hugh’s wound.
East of the palace, but still inside the inner circle of Tothmor, lay the small keep belonging to the Order garrison. It currently housed a handful of knights, some thousand infantry, and half as many archers as there were footmen; many of them were newly arrived from the Langstan, having fled before the outlander invasion. The modest keep consisted mostly of barracks for the soldiers and a tall tower that offered vigilance across the city. Near the very top of the tower, a man wearing the robes of a clerk knocked to enter the rooms placed up there. A voice inside gave him admittance, and the scribe stepped into a small study with a bedchamber adjacent.
“Milord marshal,” the clerk said, bowing his head to the Order marshal of Hæthiod.
“What news?” asked the marshal gruffly. He was an old man with little hair on his head; a lengthy white beard crowned his wrinkled face instead, which was unusual in a city where most were clean-shaven or had trimmed beards. On his aged body, the marshal wore a mail shirt underneath a surcoat like an ordinary soldier would when in camp, and a sword was strapped to his side.
“The beacon keeper confirms, Sir Leonard,” the clerk informed the knight. “The beacons at the Weolcans were lit last night. The eastern Langstan has been breached.”
“Have patrols sent out,” the marshal ordered his secretary. “Gather what knowledge they can. We also need to send out riders to begin conscription.”
“Yes, milord,” the secretary said, bowing his head again. “You think that will be necessary?”
“This has been underway for so long, I cannot recall a time before this storm threatened,” Leonard said. “Yes, it is necessary. But I will inform the queen myself that the noblemen must raise their levies. Just have the patrols sent out.”
“At once, milord,” the secretary told the marshal and left.
The old knight, left alone in his study, walked over towards the window. He had a superb view of all five districts as they descended the hill, separated by walls and the small towers on the gates. His old eyes could not discern the people crowding the streets, but he could see the many houses laid out below, increasing in number the further down his gaze swept. Although possibly the smallest of the seven capitals of Adalmearc, Tothmor still had a population of tens of thousands, and in the very moment that the beacons were lit, all of these citizens had become his responsibility to safeguard. Stroking his beard, the marshal sighed; with a deep breath, he turned away from the window and walked out to seek audience with the queen of Hæthiod.
When it was late afternoon, a small hand shook Godfrey and roused him from his sleep. “Master, master!” said a young boy insistently while still shaking Godfrey.
Godfrey opened his eyes and looked up in the rafters above the innkeeper’s bed before he turned to look at the little boy. “Where is the fire?” Godfrey mumbled, his voice thick with sleep.
“There’s no fire, master,” the boy replied.
“Then you should not wake a dragon, you will get one,” Godfrey coughed a laughter before sitting up and swinging his legs out of bed. “You are Guy’s son, right?”
“I am, master,” the boy said. “My dad said to wake you. To get you back in the common room.”
“You may consider your duty done,” Godfrey muttered, getting up.
He straightened his hair and rearranged his cloak after having slept on it. Afterwards he adjusted his belt and the scabbard that hung by it, making sure it was further back on his waist and concealed by the cloak. With all this done, he finally emerged back into the common room of the tavern.
Guy was busy tending to his patrons, but when Godfrey entered the room, Guy got his attention and nodded towards a corner of the room. In that particular corner sat a man who was in most respects unremarkable; the only thing that might make him stand out was that he had more beard growth than was considered fashionable in Hæthiod. Once Guy had managed to silently make Godfrey aware of the newcomer, Godfrey nodded in thanks and made his way over to the corner. The man was sitting at a table on which lay a chequered board. Various pieces carved in the likeness of people and objects were spread across it. It resembled chess, though it had certain characteristics that made it different from the northern variety played in Adalrik.
“Still playing against yourself?” Godfrey said as he took the empty seat across the moustached man.
“Geoffrey,” the other man said sourly. “Have not seen much of you lately. Years, in fact.”
“I tend to turn up unexpected like a rash,” Godfrey smiled. “Or tax collectors. Playing alone might make you look a little odd.”
“I like the challenge,” the bearded man spoke.
“Is that so,” Godfrey muttered. “Well, how you keep your guise is your choice.”
“If you would keep your voice lower and attract less attention,” the other man mumbled, “that would help.”
“As you wish,” Godfrey conceded and spoke in lower tones. “The beacon was lit last night. I did not realise your plans had progressed so.”
“I buy information from you. You do not gain any from me,” came the reply.
“Come now, Farhad,” Godfrey said, leaning forward with a smile. “You could share a little.”
“Do not use that name!” exclaimed Farhad. “You know what I am called here.”
“What these people call you, yes. But I wonder what they would say if they knew the truth.”
“You would not dare,” Farhad scoffed, leaning back. “You would hang right next to me.”
“I suppose,” Godfrey admitted with a shrug.
“So why have you come to disturb my game?” asked the outlander, once more rearranging the pieces on the board. “Anything to sell?”
Godfrey hesitated a moment, thoughts churning in his head. “The lord marshal of the Order has been elected lord protector of Adalrik,” he finally said.
“Interesting,” replied Farhad with his attention on the board. “But not important.”
“The young prince is to become a ward of the jarl of Vale, promising to increase the jarl’s already sizeable influence.”
“Again, interesting but not important.”
“Now that those beacons are lit, the Order will be sending their army,” Godfrey spoke.
“Do you know anything of this army?”
“There are about five hundred knights in Middanhal. I suspect that will be the vanguard, making its way towards Tothmor as soon as they can.”
This final piece of information made Farhad stop his movements on the board. “Better,” he said, looking up. He opened his purse and poured a handful coins onto the table.
“You are being stingy, Farhad,” Godfrey said, lowering his voice but adding emphasis for the last word.
“Do not press your luck,” Farhad said. Without further words, he got up and left.
“Boy,” Godfrey called out to Guy’s son. “Fetch my staff from the back. Quickly,” he added. The boy turned around, ran through the door, and returned shortly after with Godfrey’s staff. “Thanks,” Godfrey said gruffly and pointed towards the silver coins that Farhad had left on the table. “Give those to your father,” Godfrey commanded and hastened out the door. He quickly spotted Farhad moving down the street and began pursuit, though keeping distance and his hood up to conceal his face.
When the first evening bell had rung and there was still some lingering daylight outside, a priest in a yellow robe moved through the second district. He passed the gate downwards and entered the third circle that was dominated by the temples. Moving east, he walked until he reached the temple of Egnil, which was decorated in the same colour as his garments. The temple guards nodded slightly at seeing him return, welcoming him home. He walked through the halls until he reached the personal chambers of the high priest of Egnil in Tothmor and knocked.
“Enter,” came a voice from inside. The priest did as much, walking into the presence of his superior. “Brother Gregory. You are late in returning,” the high priest said. “Considering the nature of your errand, I was starting to have my doubts.”
“I pretended to be in prayer at the palace shrine,” Gregory answered. “I thought it best not to leave the inner circle too soon. The guards would have noticed me passing through the gate.”
“So it went according to plan?”
Gregory nodded. “Our friends inside the palace ensured my access without hindrance, and the boy was there to stop me as intended. Once I put on my robes, none guessed that I was the culprit.”
“Good. It has been set in motion then. The rest depends on the boy.”
“Brother Aubrey,” Gregory said hesitantly, “was it wise to enact our plans already? In our haste we might have overlooked something.”
“The beacons were lit,” muttered the high priest. “The counts and their sons will most likely be conscripted and sent to battle. We could not risk delay.”
“As you say,” the lesser priest conceded while bowing his head.
“Now he is entrenched at court and has cause to remain there, and he can carry out our designs. Worry no more, Brother Gregory. Go rest,” Aubrey told him.
“I shall, Reverend One,” the other man answered and left accordingly.
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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; certain 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.