In Salt and Wine
The days passed as the outlander army marched steadily west, ever approaching Tothmor; the city itself was reaching a boiling point in the hot summer with tension palpable on the streets in the lower circles. In the uppermost circle, however, there was still serenity; Theodora walked each morning in her rose gardens where none disturbed her. In case the unknown assailant might make another attempt on her life, she was now always accompanied. Hugh, who hitherto had been merely the scarcely known son of the disgraced Count Esmarch, was now the personal guard of the queen; he rarely left her side.
The roses were in full bloom, and their scent permeated the air as Theodora strolled leisurely with Hugh by her side. Although supposed to be her guard, he was not wearing armour of any kind; he only wore a tunic above his doublet. He did have a sword by his side, however, and few would doubt his ability to use it; his father had been renowned as an expert swordsman in his day.
“That is not true,” Theodora reproached her conversation partner, though her chastisement was undermined by her smile.
“I swear it,” Hugh said solemnly, raising one hand as if taking an oath. “Bluebells as far as the eye can see. An entire ocean of blue covering the heath.”
“I have never heard of that before,” Theodora argued.
“You have now,” Hugh pointed out. “Have you ever been to Esmarch?”
“I have never left Tothmor.”
“You should see it,” Hugh insisted. “It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. Well, almost,” he added with a glance sideways towards the queen, who modestly looked away.
“It does not seem likely I will anytime soon,” Theodora said wistfully. “With the outlanders, all of Esmarch must be overrun. It does bring me grief to think of your home despoiled in this way.”
“I am mostly grieved at the thought of their black boots trampling all the bluebells,” Hugh said with a vain attempt at smiling. “With war on the march here, there will be plenty of women giving their men bluebells for remembrance,” he said, mentioning the Hæthian tradition surrounding bluebells. “I do not cherish the prospect of leaving myself.”
“You will not be leaving,” Theodora said firmly. “As your queen I forbid it,” she added with a little smile.
“I must do as my queen commands,” Hugh smiled in return. He glanced around until he found a particularly well-shaped rose. With the small knife in his belt, he cut the stem and presented it to Theodora. “Since bluebells are not available, may I offer this instead? More beautiful and thus more fitting, I suppose.”
“You realise all these roses belong to me already?” Theodora said while her mouth curled upwards in amusement. “And in any case, if neither of us is leaving, then the custom of giving bluebells is not at play, is it?” Despite her protestations, however, Theodora still took the rose from Hugh’s fingers and accepted it with a small, polite bow.
“I would say no tradition is ever necessary for a man to present a rose to a woman,” he said, mirroring her bow as she took the flower from him.
“That may be,” she conceded, holding the flower in one hand and taking hold of his arm with the other as they continued their walk. “I fear I must cut our time in the gardens short,” Theodora continued. “I must prepare for the audience today.”
“The counts,” Hugh nodded in understanding.
“And the march wardens will arrive as well,” Theodora added.
“Your father,” Hugh said kindly.
“Yes,” Theodora smiled at the mention. “So you see, I will have to give audience.”
“Of course,” the young man accepted. “If it pleases you, I shall be present as well.”
“That would please me,” Theodora said with another smile directed at her companion.
“Unless it would be considered a breach of etiquette. I know my father has not received summons,” Hugh said in an almost neutral voice.
“I was not aware,” Theodora said hastily. “I did not realise… my aunt,” she stammered.
“I understand,” Hugh told her. “My father is disliked by many of influence at court.”
“But not by me,” Theodora was quick to point out. “I have no quarrel with him, or with any of your house.”
“That is good to hear,” Hugh smiled at her. “I meant not to cause ill feelings by mentioning it. But I thought you should know that some act in your name yet not towards your intentions.”
“That is not polite conversation,” Theodora said in warning before her voice softened. “Though I understand of what you speak.”
“Do not forget that you are queen, Your Majesty,” Hugh urged her. “Your will is our command.”
“Let us return inside,” was Theodora’s only reply, and they turned along the path to leave the gardens and enter the palace building.
The counts of Hæthiod were scheduled to appear before their queen at noon; there were still some hours until that bell rang when William of Tothmor walked through the gate between the first and second district. As first lieutenant to the lord marshal, he had been given privileged accommodations inside the palace circle, but now he walked through the nobles’ quarter of the city. None seemed to recognise his face even if his name was known to all; people saw only one knight out of the several hundred that had arrived. Still, that was sufficient to clear a path before him.
The house that attracted his steps showed little sign of being maintained. The golden spurs on William’s boots had clanged against the pavement streets; the sound died away as he moved past the gates on loose hinges and his spurs struck grass on an overgrown path through the garden. Reaching the door, William looked up to see the faded emblem of Esmarch hung above, depicting a horse riding across the plains. The knight looked for a bell string to announce his presence but found none. Lacking other options, he knocked on the front door. Only then did he realise it was already ajar.
Right hand on his sword hilt, William entered. Inside, he found no signs of violence or forced entry, however, and he was met by no one. Everything was quiet with a layer of dirt upon the floors, though boot prints could be spotted here and there.
“Is anyone present?” William called out. “My lord Hubert?” he said loudly, speaking the name of the count of Esmarch. Advancing deeper into the practically derelict house, William glanced in every direction but saw nothing to put an end to his speculations.
“I know that voice,” spoke a man from the upper floor; at the top of a staircase stood Hubert, count of Esmarch, surrounded by nothing but dust.
“Lord Hubert,” William bowed his head as the nobleman descended the stairs.
“Sir William,” Hubert returned the greeting as he finally reached the ground floor. He placed both hands on the knight’s shoulders and stared into his face. “Is it truly you? After so many years?”
“It is I, good master,” William smiled. “I remain your most respectful student, regardless of how many years it has been.”
“And the most capable one,” Hubert said with a smile between the wrinkles of his face. “I remember the first time you bested me. I have never been prouder before or after that moment.”
“You are too kind,” William said, inclining his head. “I arrived in the city a few days ago and desired to visit my old teacher.” The count looked around as if seeing for the first time the dereliction of his own house and its unsuitable state for receiving visitors. “Perhaps,” William continued cautiously, “you would join me in walking the streets? I have been indoors quite often recently.”
“As you wish,” Hubert granted. Once outside on the cobbled streets, the count seemed to breathe freer. “You have arrived with the Order, I take it?” Hubert said to his companion as they began walking through the second district.
“I did, along with all our knights,” William nodded. “The infantry should meet us soon along with the levies of Hæthiod,” he explained.
“But not I,” Hubert said almost wistfully. “I have not been summoned to court.”
“I did not know,” the knight said apologetically.
“I did not expect you to,” the count merely replied.
They walked in silence for a little while before William spoke again. “May I enquire what happened? When I left Tothmor, there was no indication of your removal from court.”
“It was only a matter of time,” the aged man said with his voice growing thin. “The king died by my side.”
“But who leads the King’s Blades?” asked William. “Who could have taken your place?”
“None do,” Hubert shrugged. “The lady Irene disbanded our company.” William stopped in stunned silence before he quickly stepped forward to catch up with his companion. “Tell me of Middanhal,” Hubert changed the subject. “Have you been able to prove your prowess to them?”
“I have,” William said with a little smile. “I won the solstice games not one month ago.”
“You used your skill for sport?” Hubert asked brusquely.
“A singular occurrence, I assure you,” William told his old master.
“And you won, you say? You beat them?” Hubert continued asking.
“All of them, my lord,” the knight declared.
“Very well then,” Hubert simply answered, though a faint smile did latch onto his face.
They had walked through most of the eastern half of the second district and now drew close to the gates leading to the adjacent circles. “I must return to the palace,” William said, glancing north towards the first district. “The counts will be given audience very soon.”
“Of course,” Hubert mumbled, “of course. Attend to your duties. I would ask the gods to preserve you in the coming battle, but I believe I taught you well enough that such is unnecessary.”
“Better pray nonetheless, just in case,” William replied, inclining his head to his old master before he turned right and walked through the gates towards the palace.
The counts of Hæthiod had been arriving in the last few days at their own pace, but now they were all to present themselves formally in answer to the queen’s summons. Some had already been present at court to wield their influence, primarily the counts of Lykia and of Larisa. Now the rest appeared to be given audience.
As when she had received the lord marshal, Theodora sat upon her throne surrounded by her advisors. Her aunt and her mother, Irene and Beatrice, were by her right side with Irene standing so close that she had one hand resting on Theodora’s shoulder; the court seer in his black robe was on her left side along with Hugh, who was dressed in new garments and a sword by his side. Standing a little distance away stood the lord marshal, his first lieutenant Sir William, and the marshal of Hæthiod as the representatives of the Order.
One by one, the lords of Hæthiod entered the hall and walked across it to stand before the throne while a herald announced their names. They knelt before Theodora, reaffirmed their loyalty, and declared that they had done their duty and brought their full levies with them. To each of them, Theodora would nod and thank them for their fealty; then they would stand aside, and the next count would enter. This ended with Count Argolis and finally Count Leukas until only the two march wardens of Hæthiod remained.
The march warden of the East appeared first. Like the others, he knelt and repeated his allegiance before he was dismissed to stand aside. Afterwards came the march warden of the South. He strode tall and with force in his steps through the audience room until he knelt before the queen. “Your Majesty,” he spoke, “your warden of the southern march appears before you, loyal as ever.” With a smile on his lips, he raised his dark eyes to meet Theodora’s, whose own eyes were of the same hue.
“Thank you, Father – Lord Stephen,” she corrected herself as Irene gave her shoulder a light squeeze. Stephen rose, gave a slight bow again, and stepped aside. Now, nearly every nobleman of Hæthiod was gathered in the audience room and they all turned to look at Theodora as she spoke. “You have all come answering the call,” she began to speak. “The realm is grateful to you for it. An enemy threatens us all, but the combined might of the men of the heath and the Order will prevail,” she concluded and thus paved the way for the lord marshal to continue as he stepped forward.
“An army marches towards this city,” Reynold said. While it was not surprising to hear that Tothmor was the target, the assertion of such dire tidings still sent ripples of whispers through the crowd. “They are an old enemy which we have not seen in such numbers for five hundred years. A genuine threat to the survival of the realms,” he continued with the faintest hint of delight in his voice. “To those who are fearful I will say this. The Order has never lost a war since it was founded with the sacred duty of protecting the realms of Adalmearc. Five hundred years ago, our forefathers assembled on these very plains to combat the same enemy we face now,” the lord marshal told the audience, to which many nodded and mumbled.
“Should any not remember what happened, allow me to remind you,” Reynold continued. “When the forces of the Order and the Mearcian realms met the outlanders upon the moors of Hæthiod, the enemy was annihilated. They turned their black boots and fled, in vain. Scarcely any of them were permitted to escape and return beyond the Langstan. Those that did could bring warning of our terrible wrath and the penalty paid for incurring it,” the lord marshal continued while letting his eyes sweep across the room, pausing his speech briefly to allow his words to make an impression.
“You have brought the soldiers of Hæthiod to this city. Soon, the remaining Order forces will join us and we will march out. We will stop this incursion and crush those who dare to threaten us,” the lord marshal vowed, and he was rewarded by outbursts hailing his resolve.
“The gods are for us,” exclaimed the count Argolis, to which many uttered their agreement, in particular the court seer standing by the throne and the high priests and priestesses scattered in the crowd of courtiers.
“In Rihimil’s name,” said Brother Dominic, still standing by Irene’s side. She in turn gave Theodora’s shoulder another squeeze, and the young queen rose.
“We place the safety of our realm in your hands and all our subjects at your disposal, Sir Reynold,” she said to the lord marshal, who gave a slight bow. The queen and her entourage left the room, and moments later, the lord marshal strode out with a satisfied expression on his face. He was followed by William, whose own countenance was blank, and the marshal of Hæthiod, whose gruff face was difficult to scrutinise. Once they were gone, the rest of the crowd dissolved into small groups and began discussing the event among themselves.
“You need not seem so displeased at being here,” Diane muttered to her son. They had been standing as close to the throne as it was possible for them to be positioned while still being beyond Irene’s immediate vicinity.
“That is not the source of my displeasure,” Leander replied. “I was merely contemplating the lord marshal’s little speech. I hesitate at the thought that our defence rests with this man, who seems to rely on stories five hundred years old for his strategy.”
“He was merely giving the counts the reassurance they always crave,” Diane scoffed. “You would understand this better if you were riding out.”
“Alas that I have not been summoned for the defence of the realm,” Leander said with a sardonic smile. “I wonder how I will live with the dissatisfaction of not being impaled by an outlander’s spear.”
“Do not use that tone,” Diane said sternly. “Your father was brave beyond measure. It is an insult to the king’s memory that his son is not being sent to war. You should be leading this army if all were right.”
“Mother, we both know I am as deficient in holding a sword as I would be commanding soldiers,” Leander dismissed her. “Father may have been brave, but he also led his Blades to a fight where he was woefully outnumbered. He died for his bravery, which is an act I do not intend to replicate.”
Until now, Diane’s eyes had been looking everywhere, exchanging glances and smiles with the other members of court. However, upon hearing her son’s words, her head shot around to let her gaze impale him. “Never speak ill of your father,” she hissed between her teeth. “Especially not where others will hear. Leave,” she added, repeating herself when he stood bewildered a moment. “Go, leave. Retire to your chambers.” Leander bowed slightly, hesitantly, and walked out.
With not only the noblemen but also their conscripts having reached Tothmor, the city streets were close to choking with people. Most of the soldiers that had arrived from the counties were camped outside the gates, but they entered the city in search of drink, entertainment, women, or all three. With one hand on his staff and the other holding on to his broad-brimmed hat, Godfrey made his way through the fifth district. Being the lowest circle and containing numerous taverns and inns, it had attracted most of the newcomers. Godfrey had good need of his staff to move through the throng of people, many of whom were rowdy long before the first evening bell had rung. He was headed in the direction of Guy’s establishment when he passed near the old madman; the beggar whose home was a barrel and whom Godfrey had met upon his arrival to Tothmor.
The voice of his ranting reached Godfrey, which in itself was not unusual; anybody passing this way would be within earshot of the self-styled prophet. However, something was different on this day; numerous people stood still, listening intently to his words. With some difficulty, Godfrey pushed forward so that he might better hear what was spoken.
“The dragons are dead! Their gods could not protect them. Do you believe they will protect you?” he asked with a fiery voice. “All our lives we were told the dragonborn were chosen, were destined to rule! Who chose them? Who gave them this destiny?”
“What is this,” Godfrey asked of the person standing next to him.
“We have been deceived!” the madman continued. “The gods care not, or they have abandoned the realms! Why do you pay homage to those who have turned their backs on you?”
“News from Middanhal,” said the person questioned by Godfrey. “They say the prince Sigmund is dead, killed in an ambush. They say there will be no more high kings.”
“Turn from them!” shouted the aged preacher. “Abandon those false gods and turn your gaze east! With the rising of the sun shall come your salvation! The god sleeping in the mountain stirs!” Godfrey narrowed his eyes with an expression of suspicion or displeasure before he turned and disappeared into the crowd.
An alley in the third district lay wedged between the houses of two merchants. They were rivals and had spent a lot of gold on making their homes as lavish as they could afford, which included walls around their premises. This made the alley very dark and thus ideal for people to meet without being seen. A man stood waiting, glancing around. He was wearing a dark cloak above yellow robes with the black bull of Egnil upon his chest. A shape emerged from the shadows, wearing a simple black robe that made him nearly impossible to spot.
“You wished to meet?” asked the black-robed acolyte. It was Nikodemos, who had previously divulged information to the priests of Egnil when Godfrey had arrived in Tothmor.
“Hel’s deep!” exclaimed the yellow-robed priest, practically jumping where he stood. “You startled me,” he mumbled and pulled the cloak and hood closer around him, concealing the yellow colour beneath and making himself near invisible.
“It was you who desired we meet here rather than at your temple,” the blackrobe argued.
“Yes, yes,” the geolrobe dismissed him. “So, what can you tell us? Any news?”
“My master has done little,” said the acolyte. “He meets with the lady Irene, but he has given no commands. I think he is waiting to see what unfolds.”
“He can wait until Hel swallows him,” scoffed the priest of Egnil. He dug out a small purse and threw it to the black-robed acolyte. “Your payment.” Nikodemos caught it and gave a slight nod before he disappeared. The man in yellow robe watched him leave with a disdainful expression; pulling the hood of his cloak tighter around his face, he left as well.
While the priest of Egnil returned to his temple, the acolyte left the third district. He passed through the second and reached the first. The guards halted him at the gate, but he showed documents wearing the seal of the court seer, and so they let him pass. Entering the palace, he walked through corridors until he reached the court seer’s chambers. After knocking, he was granted admittance. “Brother Dominic,” Nikodemos greeted and bowed before the court seer, who was getting dressed.
“How was your meeting?” Dominic asked while putting on his own black robe; unlike the acolyte’s, it had the silver dragon of their order upon its chest.
“Same as ever, Reverend One,” came the answer. “They still believe you are in the dark.”
“Did you learn anything in turn?” asked the high priest, placing his necklace with its large pendant around his neck.
“They have moved our meetings from their temple to an alley nearby, so I was unable to linger and notice anything,” the acolyte said apologetically.
“Do they suspect your allegiance?” said Dominic sharply, turning his eyes quickly to look at his servant.
“I don’t think so, Reverend One. The geolrobes are merely being cautious.”
“I suppose they have cause to be. But you must increase your efforts. I am all but convinced Count Lykia is in allegiance with them. You must find evidence of this,” the court seer urged.
“I shall do my best, but that may take days or weeks,” said Nikodemos.
“That is no matter. We have eyes on their pawn. I doubt they will dare to act while war is on the horizon and the Order army is so near. As long as you need,” Dominic said and gave a slight nod to dismiss him. “You may return to the temple.”
“Yes, Reverend One,” the acolyte said and bowed.
While the younger priest returned to the city, Dominic went to the grand hall in the palace. It was where the court took their meals; with the first evening bell ringing, food was being served. The courtiers of various ranks were already present, and the court seer hurried over to stand by his seat, just in time. Moments after, the queen entered, flanked by her mother and her aunt Irene while Hugh walked a few steps behind. With the queen having arrived, everybody might sit down and the meal could begin.
It had not lasted long before another figure burst through the entrance. It was Leander. Most turned their heads in his direction, but once they saw who it was, they lost interest. With a wry smile, Leander moved over to take a seat between Beatrice and Diane. “Mother, Aunt,” he greeted them, pulling his cup close to him.
“Not on time, but at least you are here,” Diane chastised him. Ignoring his mother, Leander filled his cup with wine.
“Make sure you eat something as well,” Beatrice interjected.
“I will,” Leander said, shooting his aunt a quick smile before he filled his plate with the meats and green in front of him. “Where is Uncle Stephen?” he asked of Beatrice, glancing around at the table.
“Your uncle is with the marshals, making plans,” Beatrice replied.
“He is exemplar in his duties,” Diane said, to which Beatrice smiled and inclined her head.
“I would have thought he would be by Theodora’s side,” Leander said casually as he sipped from his cup, “considering how long it has been since she has seen her father.”
“There will be time for that,” Beatrice said in a nearly neutral voice.
Glancing around the hall, Leander saw numerous faces that were new. The counts and their families that had arrived in Tothmor were mostly those too poor to have their own manor in the city; hence, they stayed at court and filled the places around the tables as well as the air with conversation. Primarily the talk centred on the outlanders; the women were fanning themselves in coquettish fear of what was to come, and the men were imposingly resting their hands on sword hilts in displays of courtly courage.
“They say there are three outlanders for every one of ours,” whispered one lady, managing to do it so loudly that everybody could hear.
“That is perfect,” yelled a lord, making no attempts at being subtle. “One heathman is worth four outlanders, so we still outnumber them!” he finished, brandishing the meat and bone of a roast like a weapon to accentuate his claim.
“But they are so barbaric,” said another woman. “I hear tales of how they come in the night to kill and plunder everything in sight, and nobody hears a sound! The only trace they leave is a black boot print,” she nodded sagely.
“There will be less of them left when we are done,” boasted somebody else. “We shall ride out as our ancestors did and trample them beneath our feet!” This was met by a chorus of approval and praise.
“Sounds like we do not even need the Order,” Leander commented casually before raising his cup for a servant to fill.
“Did you have something to remark upon, Leander?” said Irene, sitting on the opposite side of Theodora; her voice was treacherously innocent as she leaned forward to look upon the bastard son of her husband.
“I was merely giving quiet praise to the good knights of the Order who so speedily came to our aid. In fact, a toast to Sir William, native of this city and most renowned of knights!” Leander called out, raising his cup high in the air. The queen followed his toast by raising her own goblet, and then none others could refuse; even Irene had to follow suit, although she barely touched her cup with her lips. With a self-satisfied smile, Leander placed his chalice on the table and returned his attention to his meal. By his side, Diane seemed pleased at the exchange of words between her son and her old rival.
“Was Sir William not also trained by one of this city? The Count of Esmarch, if I recall,” said Theodora. Behind her, it was now Hugh’s turn to smile at the mention of his father, while Irene’s facial expression grew further strained. The queen did not notice this, however, and instead looked at her courtiers who were hesitant to answer.
“You are correct, Your Majesty,” Diane said finally with a smile towards the queen. “The Count of Esmarch was the finest swordsman in his day and trained many of our best, my son included.”
“And also Lord Hugh, I would imagine,” Theodora replied, turning to look at her protector behind her.
“Indeed, we are fortunate to be blessed with such skilled warriors,” Irene said, and her smile was close to appearing sincere. “Will Lord Hugh be riding out into battle along with the knights and counts of Hæthiod?” she asked in a pleasant voice.
“If duty called me so, I would,” Hugh began his reply. “However, my queen has commanded I remain here, and so I must oblige,” he finished smoothly, exchanging smiles with Theodora.
“And you, Leander? Will you show us what the fabled tutelage of Count Esmarch can yield on the battlefield?” Irene continued, changing targets.
Leander froze with his cup pressed against his lips, caught unprepared by suddenly being dragged back into the conversation. “I would,” he said slowly at first, “but my gift for avoiding disappointment has commanded that I remain here, and so I must oblige.” He smiled slyly and elicited a few laughs from the courtiers, not including his mother.
“What a sharp wit,” Irene mused. “Would that your sword were as sharp.”
“If tongues were swords, Lady Irene, you would have the outlander army in flight by your mere presence,” Leander answered, motioning for his cup to be filled again. This remark did not spark any mirth.
“If men will not defend this realm, perhaps the women must,” Irene countered, her voice sharper. “Not such a shocking thought, considering we are ruled by a queen. Or would you disagree in this reasoning?”
The court grew hushed and exchanged whispers, picking up on Irene’s pointed question. Diane placed a hand on Leander’s arm to restrain him, but he gave no indication of noticing it. There were many counts and noblemen present this evening who did not live at court. By their looks it seemed as if they only now remembered that as the king’s son, Leander had been the male heir to Everard, and he had been displaced in favour of a female heir, Everard’s niece by his sister, making the kinship matrilineal and thus further weakening Theodora’s claim.
“I never thought of it in such a way,” Leander answered at length. “When I look upon the queen, I simply see my cousin. My kin, my blood.” With those words, he shot a smile at Irene who was without husband, without children, without family.
For a moment, the court was silent. All eyes were on Irene or Leander; the only exception was a servant who entered the hall and quickly crossed it to whisper into the court seer’s ears. He in turn immediately passed the message on to Irene, and her attention towards Leander vanished. “How certain is this?” she said quietly to Dominic. The priest shrugged.
“What is it? Aunt Irene?” asked Theodora.
“Your Majesty,” Irene said, turning to look at the queen. “News in the city is that your cousin, the prince Sigmund, is slain. The House of Adal is gone.”
Clamour erupted upon hearing such news. Those most clear-sighted wondered what this meant for Adalrik and its ability to support Hæthiod against the outlanders; most people, however, simply expressed their dread that any would dare to kill their sovereign lord. With such sombre tidings, the meal was soon ended, and the court was made to disperse to continue their heated debates elsewhere. The evening had come and all but gone when Irene was walking down the hallways of the palace, and she saw a man approaching her from the other direction. “Lord Stephen,” she greeted the march warden of the South with an insincere smile.
“Lady Irene,” he said with a clenched jaw.
“Have you finished your discussion with the marshals?” she asked with an air of innocence.
“For now,” he said curtly. “We are still awaiting further news of the enemy. Once the Order forces from Adalrik arrive, we will ride out.”
“All our prayers shall go with you,” Irene said affably.
“I should like to see my daughter, though, so if you would excuse me,” Stephen continued and made to move past Irene towards the royal bedchambers.
“My dear Lord Stephen, the last bell has rung. The queen has gone to sleep already.”
Stephen narrowed his eyes. “I see. I will have other opportunities to speak with her.”
“Will you? As one of the realm’s premier commanders, I would have thought this invasion would keep you frightfully busy.”
“It is only temporarily,” Stephen said dismissively. “Once the army has been assembled, we will annihilate the outlanders and I shall return to Tothmor.”
“You sound certain. You do not think the news from Adalrik will at all be a hindrance?” Irene suggested.
“What, news of the prince?” Stephen said, raising his eyebrows. “I do not see how that will affect us here.”
“Is that so,” Irene pondered. “But of course, once this war has ended, you will have to return to your duties as march warden. In the South,” she said pointedly.
“I will not let that happen again,” Stephen replied, clenching his jaw once more. “I will not let you pack me away to some corner of the realm.”
“You were given a prestigious and important post,” Irene argued. “Many would have been honoured if the queen had chosen them.”
“My daughter, you mean,” Stephen said scowling. “My daughter, whom I let you use as a pawn before you sent me hundreds of miles away.”
“A pawn? Your daughter became queen, I remind you,” Irene said icily, and her tone of voice was reflected in the gaze she sent him.
“Under your influence,” Stephen added, his own voice growing cold as well. “But it will not last. I have finally returned to Tothmor, and I will not let history repeat itself.”
For a moment they stood, gazes locked in a contest of wills. With a snap, Irene broke away and merely smiled. “Goodnight, Lord Stephen.”
Leaving him behind, Irene made for her own chambers. Luxurious, they were almost equal to the queen’s. They also contained a visitor. “Why are you here at this late hour?” Irene asked as she noticed the court seer’s presence with a glance before she began to remove her jewellery and put it in her lockbox.
“I have another name,” answered the black-robed priest. “Brother Gregory is involved.”
“So him and the high priest,” Irene said thoughtfully. “Who among the counts? Has any been implicated?”
“We have found no evidence,” Dominic said, raising his hands.
“I am almost certain of Lykia, but he is a most cautious man,” Irene acknowledged. “He barely speaks up at court, merely lies like a viper in the shadows.”
“Should we have the geolrobes arrested? They might reveal names to lessen their punishment.”
Irene sat in front of her vanity mirror, halting her movements for a moment. “No, I doubt the counts would be so careless. Probably not even the high priest knows with certainty who is involved. Wait, be patient, let your spies do their work,” she informed him as she removed her earrings.
“As you say,” the court seer bowed.
“We will wait and see once the army departs,” Irene contemplated. “Who of the counts excuse themselves to remain behind. That might prove telling.”
“As you say,” Dominic repeated; with a final bow, he left the chambers belonging to Hæthiod’s mistress.
Although the last bell of the day had been rung, certain parts of Tothmor were still awake. It was predominantly in the lowest circle that torches and candles were still burning and people were carousing. Troy, lute slung on his back, was making rounds of the taverns and public houses of the fifth district. For a moment, he was distracted by the ravings of a preacher; the man, clad in rags and dirt, stepped forward and grabbed Troy by the shoulder. “Repent!” he snarled into Troy’s face, unleashing his bad breath onto the bard. “Do you not know that he has awakened? Soon you will be judged!” the mad prophet yelled.
“Can it wait until tomorrow? Busy night tonight,” Troy excused himself, slipping free of the madman’s grasp. He hurried away, only glancing back once while shaking his head. As he found and entered yet another tavern, the sounds of loud voices and wooden tankards clashing together met him. He shielded his eyes momentarily as he came from the dark into the lit interior until his eyes adjusted.
“I don’t care. What’s the dragonborn to me or any other in Hæthiod?” said one surly-looking man as Troy passed by and caught snippets of conversation. By the smell of him, he was a tanner of trade.
“We’re about to fight for our lives against the blackboot bastards,” someone mentioned. “Bloody fine time these drakonians picked to start a fight of their own.”
“It was them that built the wall,” argued a third patron, raising his mug of ale each time he made a point. “They founded the Order. It was Sigvard who defeated the outlanders. The dragonborn were chosen by the gods to lead us.”
“Hold on,” spoke yet another man with the haggard look of a former salt miner, “I thought Sigvard ended the Great War.”
“If the gods chose them, they obviously changed their minds.”
“The gods,” somebody else spat. “All these priests in this city, does that help us? Outlanders coming in the thousands while they kill the heir to the realms.”
“Maybe the gods can’t help us.”
“Maybe we are asking the wrong gods.”
The atmosphere was thick with smoke and soot from the torches, and Troy had to move deep through the rooms before he saw his quarry. Spotting his golden hair, Troy moved over to a highly inebriated Leander. “Troy!” Leander exclaimed, spotting the bard’s red cap. “You are just in time. I was just telling these fine folk about you.”
“Nothing good, I imagine,” Troy muttered. “You are in worse condition than usual,” he added once he had time to inspect Leander.
“I was just saying if only my good friend Troy was here. Wait, Troy. Why are you here?” Leander asked in sudden confusion.
“You asked me yesterday,” Troy explained patiently. “You wanted me to come with you into town once supper at court was over. But when I came to the palace you were gone, and I’ve been looking all over the lower circle for you.”
“Did I?” Leander said questioningly. “Sounds like me. Oh yes, supper was cut short. Bad news, which is why we are celebrating,” he said, winking at the bard as if sharing a secret.
“Are you celebrating bad news?” Troy said bewildered.
“No, not celebrating, the other word. Grieving,” Leander elaborated. “Sorry, they both involve wine, so I got confused.”
“Sounds like you have had enough. How about we leave,” the bard suggested.
“No, no!” Leander protested. “As said, you are just in time. Do you not see? Your song, Troy, your song!”
“My song?” Troy repeated bewildered.
“Yes, the only song you know to play! The dragon is dead, Troy, the little prince, and you know the song about dead dragons.”
“Are you talking about ‘The Sorrow of Glen Hollow’? The song you always berate me for singing,” Troy said irritated.
“That is the one! Do you not see, Troy, this is the only time it will make sense for you to sing it. There will be no more dragons, you will have to sing it now!” Leander insisted.
“I really think we should get you out of here instead,” Troy tried to object, but now people surrounding them became involved.
“Song! Song! Song!” they chanted until Troy felt either sufficiently threatened or flattered to take his lute into his hands.
Cheers rose up as Troy walked out into open space between the tables and began plucking the strings. He did this for a few moments while people shushed each other. Then he began singing the first verse.
“The dragonborn of great renown
Upon his head, he wore a crown
A sword of steel, his armour gold
The Dragonheart who was of old.”
As he reached the chorus, the patrons of the tavern joined in until it seemed as if their voices would lift the roof off its shingles.
“The heart, the heart of Adalrik
So young and bold, so strong and quick
But he will never see the morrow
For that’s the sorrow of Glen Hollow!”
Troy continued singing all the verses and leading the audience on the chorus until the song was done. Many cheered and toasted, some applauded, a few shed tears. Troy took a bow, slinging his lute over his back once more, and he was immediately accosted by inebriated patrons. They praised his song with drunken voices and tried to pressure him into singing another. Ducking low to escape their arms around his shoulders, the bard managed to return to Leander. “Time we leave,” he said to the youth, who was too intoxicated to argue further.
Troy managed to get them outside and supported his friend as Leander staggered onwards through the streets of lower Tothmor. “I had no idea you felt so strongly about the demise of the dragonborn,” Troy mumbled as he struggled to keep the other walking.
“Truth be told, it was a little bit of an excuse. Kept me in good drinking company,” Leander said with a wide smile and a hiccup. “I am tired, you see.”
“No wonder,” Troy remarked dryly.
“No, no, tired. Tired of the court. Tired of my mother, of Irene, of the court seer, all those peacocks about to get their feathers cut by the outlanders.”
“I am sure it feels worse than it is,” Troy assured him. “Once you wake up with a clear head or rather a hurting head, you’ll see it differently.”
“No,” Leander insisted. “I hate them, all of them.”
“That is not true,” Troy said calmly as they continued their walk through the alleys.
“No, Aunt Beatrice is nice. I like her.”
“See? There we go,” Troy replied, manoeuvring Leander around obstacles in their path.
“Then there is Theodora,” Leander mumbled.
“Careful now,” Troy said as they stepped over broken tiles that had fallen down from a roof. “Do not speak ill of the queen,” the bard added in a low voice.
“She is my cousin,” Leander continued.
“That will not necessarily save you if the wrong people hear you say the wrong thing about her,” Troy cautioned him, biting his lip.
“I used to care about her so much,” Leander slurred. “So much.”
“Oh,” Troy said, breathing a tad easier.
“I remember when she was born. Well, not that very moment, what a gross thought, Troy, really,” Leander reproached him. “But since she was small. We played in the rose gardens.”
“How nice,” Troy said absent-mindedly, glancing at their path ahead between barrels intended for catching rainwater.
“She was so sweet. The only person who did not mind who I was,” Leander confided in his friend, still speaking in his slurring manner. “And then that infernal…” a hiccup swallowed Leander’s words before he continued, “made her queen.”
“Straying into things we should not say out loud,” Troy said in a high-pitched voice.
“And told her I was danger to her. Me. Me, Troy! Me! Like I ever would steal her crown. Me, who only care about her. She cost me my only friend,” Leander blurted out and fell flat on his back.
“I will pretend not to be hurt by that statement as I am dragging your drunk carcass through the streets past midnight,” Troy responded, bending down to help Leander stand up.
“Sorry. Sorry, sorry. My only friend at court, I mean. My family. That I thought genuinely cared about me. Now she looks at me like her enemy. All because of what they whispered in her ear, poisoned her against me.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Troy said caringly. “Come, we are almost there.”
“Where are you taking me? This is not my room,” Leander said, suddenly aware of their surroundings and that they were in the fifth district still. They passed by a certain barrel from which loud snores emitted.
“All the city gates are closed,” Troy reminded him. “I am not hauling you up the mountain through all five circles anyway. I know the tavern owner here, he lets me sleep out in the back,” the bard explained.
“An embrace is all I intend,” Leander said in a voice that was halfway between being earnest and slurred.
“I’m flattered, but how about you get some sleep first,” Troy answered as they entered the backyard of Guy’s tavern. There was a lean-to where a cow was sleeping, surrounded by hay.
“No, her,” Leander said, closing his eyes while Troy managed to lower his friend down to rest upon the hay. “I do not want to harm her. Just embrace her. She has these pretty curls, you ever notice?”
“I can’t say I have,” Troy admitted. “Now rest, Leander.” It was not a necessary command to give; already Leander had surrendered to the realm of sleep. With a faint sigh, Troy sat down next to him, made himself comfortable in the hay, and closed his own eyes.
A few days passed after the arrival of the counts and the massing of Hæthiod’s armies near Tothmor. With final preparations made, they only awaited the arrival of the remaining Order forces from Adalrik. When the first small group of soldiers arrived from Lake Myr, the marshals and Sir William were reluctant to believe them. But as more bands arrived, confirming the story, rumours began to spread throughout the city.
In the end, the news could not be contained nor denied. Although in shock, the commanders of the Order and the noblemen of Hæthiod had to accept what they were told. Northern Adalrik had risen in rebellion and seized Middanhal while the Order army at Lake Myr had been defeated, forced to flee and disperse; the promised reinforcements would not arrive. The knights of the vanguard and the levies of the Hæthian counts were all the troops they would have at their disposal while the outlander army drew ever nearer to Tothmor.