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The Small Leak

Middanhal

After lying sleepless in her bed, Kate rose with the other kitchen girls and attended to her duties as usual. Breakfast was prepared and served before dirty plates and cups were brought back. There was a constant flow of servants entering and leaving the main kitchen room throughout the day, but Kate’s tasks kept her confined there for several hours. Eventually though, Cook told her to refill the kitchen vessels.

Near the kitchen was a small room like a well, where a bucket could be lowered and filled with water from the Citadel’s reservoirs. After grabbing a large, wooden bucket, Kate left the kitchen and went to the indoor well. She attached the container to the rope and dumped it down the well. As the it filled up, she had to struggle to pull the rope back. With a final heave, Kate manoeuvred the bucket to the side that she might grab hold of it. As she turned to leave the well room, she saw a shadow blocking the light coming from the corridor. Looking towards the entrance, she found it occupied by a slender shape.

“Hallo, Kate,” Holwine said.

“Who are you? You don’t work in the kitchens,” Kate spoke with narrowed eyes.

“No. I am a servant to the jarl of Theodstan.”

“Well, this is the kitchens, so you’re in the wrong place,” Kate said dismissively.

“Not at all. I am here to talk to you.”

“What for?” Kate asked, suspicion filling her voice.

“Because,” Holwine said slowly, “last night I was not asleep. I was awake, keeping watch. And I saw something.”

“You’ll get in trouble for that,” Kate stated. “You’re not supposed to be out after nightfall.”

“I wasn’t the only one, though,” Holwine retorted. “I saw two others. A man and a girl.”

“Who?” Kate asked.

“I could not see their faces,” Holwine admitted.

“Then why are you talking to me,” Kate muttered, and she moved towards the door opening. Holwine blocked it, preventing her from moving past.

“Because I wondered what reasons there might be for a girl to be out so late at night. Other than pilfering fruit,” came the sarcastic reply. “When I asked around, I was told a most peculiar thing. That a certain kitchen girl spends her evenings in the library tower, working for the Quill.”

“It’s not a crime,” Kate said with a hard look. “I can spend my evenings how and where I want.”

“Ah, but last night, this particular kitchen girl spent her night there as well. What did you tell that other girl?” Holwine pondered, frowning in concentration for a moment. “Ah yes, you know how to navigate by the stars now. Quite something.”

“Never telling her a thing again,” Kate mumbled. “Look, it was just a pear. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t have the slightest interest in that. What I want to know,” Holwine said, crouching down a bit to be at the same eye level as Kate, “is who the man was that you saw in the orchard.”

“I didn’t see anybody,” Kate claimed, her eyes shifting to the side. “It was dark, no moon.”

“He passed by your tree,” Holwine countered.

“I didn’t look down,” Kate said, shifting strategy to glare at the person interrogating her.

“You were not at all curious?” Holwine asked innocently.

“No,” Kate said with a definitive voice.

“The girl who wants to learn to read and know the stars is not curious by nature?” Holwine said with a sardonic smile.

“Look, why do you care?” Kate asked. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing to me personally,” Holwine admitted with a shrug. “No, I want you to tell the captain.”

“Are you mad?” Kate exclaimed.

“Whoever you saw is a danger to this castle. He did not have good intentions for being out last night.”

“Same could be said for you,” Kate said aggressively. “I don’t know you, I’m not going to stick my neck out for you.”

“Not for me, but for everyone,” Holwine hissed. “That man was communicating with the rebels. No doubt giving them the knowledge they need to take the castle.”

“How do you know? You’re just guessing,” Kate argued.

“On a silent night, the sound of an arrow piercing the air travels quite far. I could not see it, but I heard it,” Holwine replied. “How else do you pass messages from a besieged castle to the besiegers or reverse? I don’t know what the message said,” came the admittance, “but anybody trading words with the rebels poses a danger. Kate, you must tell the captain what you saw.”

“He won’t believe me,” Kate said faintly. “No one would take my word for it. You do it,” she suggested. “You care so much, you tell the captain.”

“I was not the witness,” Holwine countered. “I do not have the same excuse as you for being out so late last night.”

“Why were you out?” Kate enquired. “You’re not a knight or a soldier, you’re just a servant like me. Why are you skulking about at night?”

“My master, his sister, my own brother,” Holwine listed, “all of them have risked their lives to save this city, this castle. I will do everything it takes to keep that traitor Isarn from getting his hands on this place.”

“Except tell the captain what you saw,” Kate said unimpressed. “No, you’re happy to let me take that risk.”

“You won’t even tell me who you saw,” Holwine argued. “You must! You must let the captain know!”

“No one will believe me,” Kate whispered. “And if he finds out I saw him, he’ll kill me.”

“Is he a knight? A nobleman, a kingthane? Is that why you are so afraid?” Holwine wondered with narrowed eyes.

“If I don’t return now, Cook will wonder where I’ve gone. You can’t force me,” Kate said defiantly. “Let me go.”

“If the rebels know when and where to attack, where the guard is weak, this castle will fall to the rebels within a day,” Holwine warned.

“Let me go,” Kate demanded.

“You’re the only one who can stop this. Tell me who you saw.”

“Let me go, or I’ll scream,” Kate threatened. “And you’ll be the one in chains.”

Holwine wavered for a moment before stepping aside and gesturing for Kate to walk through the now unblocked opening.

~~~~

In the Isarn compound, there was more activity than usual in the courtyard. Gazing from her observation post by the window, Arndis could see all who entered and left, all that went on, and she would narrate this to her fellow captives. It was rarely riveting, but deprived of nearly all other diversions, it was the best they could do.

“How odd,” Arndis said contemplatively. “It looks as if they have strapped a large bow to a crate on wheels,” she frowned.

“I am not surprised considering the madness they have shown,” Eleanor said idly.

“Yet there tends to be a dire purpose to their madness,” Theodwyn mumbled as she stood up and joined Arndis by the window. “I have seen one of those before. It is called a ballista,” Theodwyn explained. “It is a contraption invented by that guild of engineers from Fontaine. They must have hired one.”

“What does it do?” Arndis asked, still frowning. A man was tending to the machine, applying different oils to its wooden and metallic parts.

“It shoots missiles, but with greater force and across longer distances than a bow can,” Theodwyn replied. “It is a weapon for siege warfare.”

“Are they attacking the Citadel?” Eleanor asked, finally walking over to find a spot to stand where she might also look out onto the courtyard.

“It would seem so,” Theodwyn granted. “Though I wonder what they will need that machine for.”

“Nothing good,” Arndis said softly. “If the Citadel falls, Jarl Isarn will be one step closer to his goal,” she added.

“The Order is coming,” Theodwyn claimed. “It is only a matter of time before this nightmare is over.”

“I wish I could be as confident as you,” Eleanor stated, prompting Arndis to touch her hand in a consoling manner. In the courtyard, the engineer continued to prepare the ballista.

~~~~

When the first evening bell had rung, Kate went to the library tower. She found her book and continued to read about what had happened after the siege of Herbergja had ended and the liberation of Thusund began. She made very little progress, however; she was constantly glancing outside at the window where the day was slowly reaching its end and nightfall was approaching.

“What is wrong?” Quill asked calmly without raising his gaze from the page he was writing.

“Sorry?” Kate asked.

“I can hear you move about constantly, yet you are not turning the page.”

Kate bit her lip. “Master Quill, is it wrong to keep secrets?”

Quill put down his feather pen and finally looked at Kate. “Depends on the secret. Is it harmless?”

“Don’t think so,” Kate said dismayed.

“Will it hurt somebody if you tell it?” Quill asked.

“Definitely. Probably me,” she said even more distraught.

“Will it hurt somebody if you do not tell it?” he continued.

“I’m afraid so,” Kate said quietly.

“Can you tell me?” Quill asked gently. “Perhaps I can better counsel you if I know the matter at hand.”

Kate sat, her lips pressed together. “I stole a pear. Two actually, though I didn’t enjoy the second. So it shouldn’t count.”

The corner of Quill’s mouth twitched upwards. “I think that is harmless enough to keep to yourself.”

“That’s not it,” Kate shook her head. “But you had to hear that first. Because that’s how I know.”

“Know what?” Quill said, his voice turning sharper as he kept his gaze on Kate, who in turn found it hard to meet his eyes.

~~~~

In the Isarn house, Ernulf was overseeing a band of soldiers training in the courtyard. While other thanes were giving out the actual instructions, correcting the stance and movements, Ernulf was content with watching. Ulfrik came up to him, nodding towards the men. “How are they coming along?” asked the captain of the thanes.

“Decent,” Ernulf said with an expression hovering between acknowledging and unimpressed.

“They better be ready for tonight,” Ulfrik warned. “We will need them.”

“Captain, most of these are farm boys,” Ernulf said quietly. “Just because they got mustered and brought here, it doesn’t mean they will be much good to us.”

“We got no choice,” Ulfrik growled. “We got barely a thousand men to hold the city. I am not risking my experienced men on this.”

“But you do plan on going through with it?” Ernulf asked suggestively after a moment.

“If this mysterious messenger really can give us the Citadel, we have to try,” Ulfrik declared.

“It’s a lot of faith to put on somebody whose name we don’t even know,” Ernulf argued. “What if it’s a trap?”

“Then we will make plans for that,” Ulfrik said dismissively. “The engineer has built me a ballista.”

“What for? If the gate opens, we won’t need it. If it doesn’t open, then it’s a trap and the machine won’t get us on the walls,” Ernulf asked confused.

“It’s not for the northern gate,” Ulfrik spoke in a brusque tone. “If it’s really a trap, they will gather their soldiers in that place. Meanwhile, you take the ballista and the hooks and attack the southern walls while their focus is to the north.”

“Clever,” Ernulf admitted. “I’ll need a handful of archers, though, to keep the walls clear while we make the climb.”

“You will have them,” Ulfrik nodded. “And a hundred men.”

“A hundred?” Ernulf exclaimed. “I need twice that at least!”

“Did you not hear me earlier?” Ulfrik said with a threatening growl. “I barely have enough men to keep the city under control and the Citadel under siege. If you die with a hundred men, it will be a loss I can take. But not two hundred,” the captain stated.

“What risks is Lord Isenwald prepared to take?” Ernulf retorted. “Have you counselled with him? Or perhaps I should request his opinion on this risky endeavour, not to mention everything else that you do in his name. Does he know about the dead robes, about Beaumont and his wife?”

Ulfrik had been looking at the soldiers training, but now he slowly turned his head to let his cold eyes gaze at Ernulf. The thane swallowed and had difficulty meeting his captain’s stare. “Not another word, Ernulf, unless you want to be served up next in the pig sty.”

“Yes, captain,” Ernulf mumbled.

“Be ready for tonight,” Ulfrik commanded him. “Make sure the men practise climbing.”

“Yes, captain.”

~~~~

It was afternoon when two Order soldiers appeared outside Elis’ chamber and told his servant that Captain Theobald desired to see the landgrave. “I am not accustomed to being summoned,” Elis said with a sour expression, but the soldiers’ faces remained unmoved. One of them repeated a gesture for the nobleman to move along. “Yes, yes,” Elis snapped and followed them.

Once Elis entered the captain’s study, he found two other people there apart from Theobald. One was the red-robed Quill, and the other looked to be simply a lowly kitchen girl. “Captain?” Elis said questioningly.

“Thank you for coming, my lord,” Theobald muttered. “Do you know this girl?”

“Never seen her before,” Elis said dismissively. “What is this about?”

“You are certain? You do not recall ever having dealings with her in any regard?” Theobald enquired.

“I am not in the habit of frequenting the kitchens,” Elis said irritably. “I ask again, what is this about?”

Ignoring him, Theobald turned to Kate. “You still say the same?” Her mouth trembled slightly, so instead Kate nodded vaguely. Quill placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, whereas Theobald turned to look at Elis again. “Lord Elis, you stand accused of communicating with the rebels and besiegers of this Citadel. This is high treason against the Crown,” Theobald explained.

“How dare you!” Elis roared. “I presume this is my accuser? A servant girl impugns the honour of a landgrave?”

Quill began to speak, but he was silenced by a hand from Theobald. “I will handle this, Master Quill. Yes, the girl claims she saw you in the orchard last night, retrieving an arrow presumably containing a message from the traitors outside our walls,” the captain said.

“Preposterous,” Elis scoffed. “That is an absolute lie. Has the wench explained why she herself was in the orchard at night?”

“That is a separate matter,” Theobald replied. “What matters now is the question of your presence last night.”

“I was asleep through the night as all decent folk should be,” Elis said with a sharp glance towards Kate. “I have answered this outrageous allegation. This is a waste of my time,” he declared and began to turn away.

“That is for me to judge,” Theobald warned him, prompting Elis to stay.

“You do not honestly mean to detain me?” Elis said incredulously. “The word of a kitchen girl against a nobleman? The Adalthing would never find me guilty on such flimsy evidence, nor would any king,” he stated.

“That is entirely true,” Theobald acknowledged. “However, I am neither of those things. Guards, have him chained up in the dungeons.”

“What?” Elis burst out as the guards moved forward and grabbed him by his arms. “No, you cannot do this! You have no proof!”

“Why would the girl risk so much punishment if it was a lie?” Theobald asked. “You said yourself you do not know her. She has no motive for wishing you harm.”

“But,” Elis stammered, “I am a landgrave. She is a servant,” he said in disbelief. “Somebody is paying her to besmirch my honour,” he finally spat out.

“Possibly,” Theobald granted. “But I cannot risk it. If you are innocent, all that has been harmed is your honour. But if you are guilty, I will not risk the safety of this castle merely because of your title. Enough,” he finished, nodding to the guards. Under further futile protestations, they dragged Elis out of the chamber. “As for you, theft of food is a serious crime during a siege,” Theobald said sternly as he turned his gaze on Kate. “Given the circumstances, I will forego punishment for now. However, if I learn that this repeats itself or that you have lied to me on this occasion, the consequences will be severe. Do you understand?”

“She understands,” Quill intervened. “Thank you, captain,” he added and steered Kate out of the room.

“Thanks,” Kate mumbled once they were some distance down the corridor. “Once Lord Elis came into the room, I thought I made a mistake. My tongue just froze, I thought he would have me killed.”

“You are quite welcome,” Quill told her before faint laughter escaped his lips.

“What’s funny?” Kate frowned.

“I was reminded of an islander saying,” Quill answered, still smiling. “How goes it? ‘The smallest leak can sink the greatest ship’, I think they say.”

“Why did you think of that?” Kate asked.

“Whatever Lord Elis’ schemes were, I am sure they were complicated to no end. Yet for all his cunning,” Quill said amused, “his great plans were laid low by a kitchen girl.”

“A kitchen girl who can read,” Kate said proudly. “And navigate by the stars, and who knows the history of the realms.”

“Quite right,” Quill laughed as they walked down the corridor. Outside, light was waning; nightfall was at most a few hours away.

~~~~

The dungeons of the Citadel were part of the large complex that stretched below the ground, near the food stores, water reservoirs, Hall of the Honoured Dead, and what other rooms that had been delved. While the areas containing supplies had numerous guards posted by them, only one guard could be spared for the section containing the prisoner cells.

These were few in number; given that nearly all crimes were punished with fines, exile, and on the rare occasion with execution, there was never need for lengthy incarceration of anybody. They were only used in the short term for holding those awaiting trial or judgement, such as the landgrave of Elis.

Walking down the stairs under the north tower, one would reach a large, circular guardroom. Like a many-pointed star, corridors extended in every direction from here, each of these containing multiple cells. Elis had been thrown into one of these. He was the only prisoner in the dungeons; the garrison had not taken captives after repelling the assault upon the Citadel by the Isarn soldiers.

The single sentinel assigned to guard Elis was in the circular entrance room with heavy doors between them. Furthermore, Elis was secured by chains to the wall; all he could see was the door to his cell, which had a small window with bars to allow somebody outside to check on his state without entering the room.

Therefore, when odd sounds reached Elis, distorted by distance and doors, the landgrave was unable to move and see the cause. He called out but received no reply; then he heard the door between the guardroom and the corridor swing open and footsteps approaching. A shape appeared by the door to his cell, but the lack of light did not allow him to see who it was. Keys could be heard jangling in the keyhole, and a moment later, the door swung open. The person stepping forward did not wear an Order surcoat.

“What is going on?” Elis said with barely a breath.

“I am here to talk,” Holwine said, squatting in front of Elis with a predator’s smile. “Or rather, listen to you talk.”

“Stay back,” Elis stammered, pressing up against the wall to which he was chained.

“Afraid I can’t,” came Holwine’s answer, accompanied by a knife being drawn. “You see, someone I care for has risked an awful lot to stop your friends outside the walls. I can’t let you undo that.”

“If you hurt me,” Elis said hoarsely, “they will hang you. I am a lord, you cannot lay a finger on me.”

Holwine laughed. “Tell me, Lord Elis, do you have any idea who I am?”

“No,” Elis said with as much defiance as he could muster. “You are just a servant. Nothing compared to my importance!”

“Then how can they punish me for this when you do not know who hurt you?” Holwine asked with a smile and pressed the cool blade against Elis’ cheek. “Time for answers, milord,” the servant said.

~~~~

It was almost dark when a knight opened the door to Theobald’s study and strode in without delay. He was the same knight given command over the remaining Order regiments, which had arrived from the north and been unable to leave Middanhal before the uprising. Along with Theobald, he was the only man wearing golden spurs in the city. “You wanted to see me?” the knight said gruffly.

“Fionn, you should read this,” the captain replied, handing him a small piece of paper.

The knight grabbed the offered paper and read it, mumbling to himself. “To the captain,” he muttered as his eyes glanced downwards. “Spoke with Elis in the dungeons – confirmed his treason,” Fionn exclaimed, looking up at the captain.

“Keep reading,” Theobald told him.

Assault tonight on northern gate – sorry about your guard – apart from a headache he is no worse for the wear,” the knight finished reading, rubbing a small bump on the back of his own head.

“I found that letter waiting for me in my personal chambers,” Theobald said dourly. “Sent a man to the dungeons and true enough, the guard had been knocked out and placed in one of the cells. Lord Elis was babbling incoherently but seems fine apart from a few scrapes.”

“What does this mean?” Fionn asked, his eyes examining the letter once more.

“Either someone is playing a game too complex for me to understand,” Theobald began to say, “or else we are in for a rough night.”

“You put faith in this?” Fionn said sceptically. “A note without name, making dubious claims.”

“I cannot afford to overlook it,” Theobald argued. “If there is a shred of truth to it, we must be ready.”

“We are stretched thin,” Fionn reminded him. “Even if we deny most of our men sleep, we cannot scrape together more than fifty soldiers or so for the defence. Unless you want to abandon more sentry posts.”

Theobald did not answer immediately. Instead, he leaned back slightly. “What times we live in,” he muttered. “I never expected such when I was given this position. The North in revolt, rebels outside in the streets and traitors inside our walls!”

“Theobald,” Fionn said sternly, “save such talk for the bards. What do you want done?”

“Scrape those fifty men together. Choose from the kingthanes, I want the best warriors we have.”

Fionn nodded. “I will collect them now and bring them to the northern garrison tower.”

“Not yourself,” Theobald instructed. “You spend the night in the southern.”

“Theobald,” Fionn began to protest, “I am your only knight in here. I must be where the fighting is.”

“Remember the principles,” Theobald admonished him. “Never both commanders in the same place.”

“If you fall tonight, it will be because the Citadel is overrun,” Fionn argued. “There will be nothing for me to command.”

Theobald shook his head. “If they breach the castle, you must lead the final defence. Retreat into the royal wings. It is the most defensible inner part. Kill as many of these dogs as you can.”

“Let us hope it does not come to that,” Fionn said. “Besides, with Lord Elis in the dungeons, the rebels have lost their advantage. Maybe they will abandon their attack when they see the gate is not opened for them.”

“Perhaps,” Theobald said doubtingly. “They hold the northern city walls. It might give them sufficient access to storm our defences. We shall hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

“As always,” Fionn nodded and left, walking towards the kingthanes’ quarters.

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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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