Fighting continued throughout the night. There were skirmishes on the streets as the Order soldiers met Isarn patrols, especially as they moved like a wildfire down the Arnsweg; the heaviest resistance came as the attackers tried to cross the Mihtea and enter Lowtown. The Arnsbridge was a choking point, which the defenders knew to take advantage of. Their commander on this night, a thane left behind in the city by Isenhart, also had the most forces at his disposal. The same thought, which had imagined no danger lurked in northern Adalrik and thus left the northern walls nearly empty, had feared an assault by Vale from the south and therefore positioned most of Isarn’s soldiers by the southern walls.
Nearly two hundred men managed to gather and defend the Arnsbridge; although usually considered a wide construction, now it seemed narrow. The Order soldiers could not use their superior numbers to sweep the opposition aside, and general hand-to-hand combat erupted, chaotic and merciless. The number of fallen among the attackers was as great as among the defenders; this basic equation meant that when the last Isarn soldier fell, the Order still had men standing. So many dead littered the bridge that the grey stones of its pathway could not be seen, and Brand had to walk upon the corpses to continue along the Arnsweg as it moved through Lowtown. He commanded two soldiers to set aside the body of the fallen thane, who had defended Lowtown with such valour, but they could not distinguish him among the dead; thus, his name did not survive either.
With resistance broken, the southern fortifications fell quickly. Brand walked through the narrow corridors to reach the top of the gatehouse where the flag carrying the black swords of Isarn was pulled down. One of the bannermen of the Order, who had faithfully carried his burden across the Weolcan Mountains, raised the banner of the Star instead. Brand sent a glance towards the open fields that lay south of Middanhal and turned his eyes north; before he returned to the Citadel, he let his gaze rest against the city of which the Order was once more the master.
At the Citadel, doubt and disbelief were the recurring reactions towards the sight of Order soldiers in the city. Saturated with the constant, deep-seated fear that only sieges might give birth to, the beleaguered garrison was convinced it was another ploy. In the end, they found Captain Theobald and brought him to the northern gate; the commotion had already awakened him along with many others inside the castle. Events moved faster once that happened; recognising Richard, Theobald finally accepted that the impossible had happened. The castle gate was opened, and the Citadel was put to use immediately; there were many dead and wounded to take care of.
Since the southern courtyard was the largest and its gate lay closest to the rest of the city, Theobald chose it as the location for an improvised field hospital; the injured were brought to this place. The kingthanes were selected to stand guard and keep order, and a small band of nine soldiers were allowed to remain there and rest rather than participate in cleansing the city; they were the survivors of the initial assault upon the gatehouse. Word was spreading fast of their deed, and the kingthanes flocked around them to hear it told by the characters of the tale. In return, they spoke of what had happened in the city, Isarn’s revolt and the failed attacks on the Citadel, and naturally, the kingthanes’ own role in repulsing these attacks.
“You!” a voice tore through the courtyard. Like a charging bull, Berimund pushed through the crowd of soldiers; taller and broader than anybody else present, none could even slow him down. Confusion was seen on every expression, but none wanted to ask questions or hinder the progress of the captain of the kingthanes; finally, Berimund reached Nicholas. One giant hand shot out and grabbed the archer by the collar, making him drop his bow. While strong as any longbowman, Nicholas struggled in vain against Berimund’s grip and could not extricate himself.
“Please,” Nicholas stammered; although Berimund’s hand was grasping his clothes and not his neck, he nonetheless had trouble breathing. “What have I done?”
“You killed the prince!” Berimund roared into his face, his free hand moved behind his back to unsheathe his axe. “I could not save him, but Hel damn me if I do not avenge him!”
“Let him go,” spoke a new voice, calm yet loud enough to be heard clearly. The spectators quickly parted to allow Brand entry into the small circle that had formed around the kingthane and the archer.
“Stay out of this,” Berimund warned even as his hand found his axe and gripped it tightly.
“That man is my soldier,” Brand stated, “and you will not harm him in this lawless manner. Relinquish your grip at once, or I will make you face the consequences.”
“Who dares to speak this way?” Berimund yelled. “Who dares to keep me from my righteous vengeance?”
“I am Adalbrand of House Arnling,” Brand declared, his voice remaining calm. “Atheling of Arn, atheling of Sigvard, dragonborn, and lieutenant commander of the Order troops that just reclaimed this city. As I said, this man is under my command and thus my protection.”
“Arnling,” Berimund said with a contorted face. “You have sought to interfere with me before.”
“Be that as it may, this is a different matter. If you have grievance with this man, you will address it properly. For the last time, relinquish your hold upon him and state your case to me,” Brand said forcefully.
Berimund turned to stand directly in front of Brand; while of equal height, the kingthane was broader across the shoulders and seemed imposing. Brand met his gaze without flinching. “This man, your man, killed the prince,” Berimund claimed, releasing his hold on Nicholas, who fell down. “He was among the archers who ambushed us on the Kingsroad.”
“How do you know this?” Brand asked.
“After the attack, we found the bodies of the archers who did it. Not only that, but a figurine among them. A trophy for winning the solstice archery game. The trophy that he received!” Berimund said triumphantly, pointing his axe head at Nicholas who was still lying on the ground.
“You found the bodies of the attackers?” Brand said frowning.
“Their master repaid them with treachery as they deserved,” Berimund spat. “He killed them after the misdeed, no doubt to cover his tracks.”
“If so, how can this man be one of the guilty parties? He is, after all, very much alive,” Brand pointed out.
“He obviously escaped,” Berimund argued. “Lost his trophy and could not go back for it.”
“And after killing the heir to the realms, he fled to Middanhal,” Brand said sceptically. “The only city where he would be easily recognisable due to his fame after winning the solstice games. His next move was to join the Order army to defend the realms whose heir he slew, risking his life to allow us to retake this city. This does not strike you as odd?” Brand asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I cannot speculate for his motives,” Berimund retorted disdainfully, “but it does not mean he is innocent.”
“It certainly does not mean he is guilty,” Brand countered. “If you are bent on pursuing this, a trial may be held. But you will not harm him in this arbitrary manner.”
“It was stolen,” Nicholas squawked from the ground. “The figurine. Someone stole it from me, and my winnings. That’s why I joined the Order army. I needed the silver.”
“Convenient,” Berimund sneered.
“Regardless, we are done here. Killing a soldier of the Order is considered treason, Lord Berimund, regardless of your reasons or suspicions and regardless of your rank. Rest assured, I will pursue such an accusation against you if you give me cause,” Brand warned him.
Berimund stood, contempt written across his face, but at length he simply turned and left. Nicholas, on the other hand, moved to on his knees to grab Brand’s hand. “Thank you, milord,” he exclaimed, pressing the squire’s hand to his forehead. “I thought I was dead for sure.”
“You crossed the Weolcans for me,” Brand said neutrally. “You attacked an unconquerable city at my command. I do not repay such loyalty with abandonment. But know that if there is any truth to it, I will let Lord Berimund and his axe have their way.”
“Of course, milord,” Nicholas said, speaking so swiftly that his words were tripping over each other. “Thank you, milord, thank you, I am your servant, milord, always, thank you,” he repeated until the words became meaningless sounds.
“As you were,” Brand said in a simple tone, extricating his hand and dismissing the soldiers who had been watching the spectacle. The crowd dispersed, leaving Nicholas to wipe his brow, pick up his bow staff, and steady his heart.
As the day approached noon and Nicholas was composed once more, he left the Citadel. Following the Arnsweg, he passed through the city going south. Bodies were still being dragged from various parts of the city to the Temple square before being taken to the Hall of the Honoured Dead until burial could be arranged. Robes in all colours were constantly crossing the square, aiding the Order soldiers in helping the wounded and moving the dead. As he avoided getting in the way, Nicholas wove his way through until he reached the Arnsbridge.
Here, he was forced to wait a while. Since more soldiers had fallen in this place than anywhere else, there was more work to do cleaning up. Things were further complicated by the fact that many bodies had fallen into the water, and there was fear that if left to rot, they might contaminate the water. Hence, the best swimmers were diving into the river with ropes, locating what corpses they could and tying them together, so other soldiers could pull them up. All this commotion delayed Nicholas until the bridge finally cleared long enough that he could make his way across. For every twenty paces, a statue was erected on both sides of the walls that ran along the bridge, statues depicting kings and heroes of Adalrik. Many of these had been damaged in the battle and had severed limbs or scarred faces. It gave them eerie expressions, and Nicholas did not linger.
As he reached the southern bank, he was in Lowtown. The battle for Middanhal last night had not come far beyond the Arnsbridge, and as such, Lowtown was relatively untouched; only at the other end of the road near Saltgate were there signs that combat had taken place. Nonetheless, the lower quarters had an oppressive air weighing on their streets; while normally full of people and bustling with life, few were seen. All windows had their shutters closed or were boarded up, and many buildings had signs of damage. Pools of dried blood were everywhere to be found; sending fearful glances in all directions, Nicholas continued into the crooks and corners of Lowtown.
Finally, the archer reached his destination, a house with a sign hanging outside depicting a flagon of ale. The place looked deserted unlike the first time he had been there, where it had been full of life and revelry. The door was locked and the windows shut, but one of them did not bolt properly; with some effort, Nicholas pried the shutter open and jumped inside. He was treated to a dark common room where not all the furniture was intact; shattered legs of chairs and other pieces of wood lay stacked in one corner.
Suddenly, a large shape appeared, and despite its size moved with surprising speed against him; a footstool was raised in hand as a blunt weapon. “It’s me, Nicholas!” the archer exclaimed, raising his bow staff in defence while also stumbling back several paces.
“Master Nicholas,” the shape exclaimed, the voice revealing itself as belonging to the owner of the tavern.
“Master Gilbert,” Nicholas replied. From another direction, another figure appeared with a threatening meat cleaver, which was lowered upon hearing the exchange of greetings.
“It’s fine, Ellen,” Gilbert said, raising a disarming hand. “I doubt our Master Nicholas is here to rob us. Find him a tankard of ale, will you. Mustn’t forget our hospitality.”
“Yes, pa,” the girl answered.
“Let’s sit out in the yard, more light,” Gilbert muttered and led Nicholas out of the tavern’s dark interior.
A table and a few chairs stood there already; clearly, the inhabitants of the tavern had been spending their time in this space rather than inside. “Had to board things up,” Gilbert said apologetically. “There were riots on the streets from the very evening that those rebel bastards took over. Blood spilled all over Lowtown, it wasn’t safe.”
“Understandable,” Nicholas nodded. “Thanks,” he added as Ellen brought him something to drink.
“You’re welcome,” she smiled.
“I came with a purpose in mind,” Nicholas admitted. “I might require you to witness that I was robbed while staying here,” he told them, rubbing the back of his head where he had been clubbed.
“Witness?” Gilbert said questioningly. “What for?”
“There has been some confusion, apparently,” Nicholas said evasively. “It would put my mind at ease if I could count on you telling any that asked for confirmation.”
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling the truth,” Gilbert acceded.
“How are you back?” his daughter interjected with curiosity illuminating her eyes. “We kept hearing that the Order was destroyed at Lake Myr.”
“Very nearly so,” the archer admitted. “We kept cool heads though, retreated. Crossed the Weolcans, marched west and retook the city from the north.”
“Bull’s beer,” Gilbert exclaimed. “You crossed the mountains?”
“Two weeks of snow and rock,” Nicholas assented. “Was hard, I tell you. Men died.”
“But you took the city,” Ellen pointed out, her eyes shining. “Nobody thought that would happen. It’s been a month, everybody said it would never happen. Nobody could ever take the walls of Middanhal, they said.”
“It wasn’t easy either,” Nicholas said. “But we did with hooks and rope in the middle of the night. Me and twenty others, my mate Quentin among them, we snuck onto the walls and opened the gatehouse.”
“It’s like a story from the songs,” Ellen said with admiration.
“I suppose,” Nicholas replied, shuffling his feet and casting his eyes down.
“But it’s certain?” Gilbert asked insistently. “The city is safe? The Order has taken it?”
“We fought through the night, but yes,” Nicholas told them. “The gates, the Citadel, we control it all. You’re safe.”
“Thank the Seven and Eighth,” Gilbert exhaled, wiping his brow. “Perhaps I can open up for business. Oh, I must make ready,” he said distracted, getting up and disappearing inside.
“What happens next though?” Ellen asked, her fair features crossed with concern. “They’ll be back to attack us, won’t they? With no king or heir, all the jarls will want to rule here.”
“No need to worry,” Nicholas assured her, squeezing her hand. “We’re here now. After the mountains and last night, defending this city is nothing,” he claimed with a smile.
“You’re staying here to defend us?” Ellen asked. “Not going to the moors after all.”
“The army’s place is here,” Nicholas nodded. “Protecting this city is more important than anything. We’re not going anywhere.”
“Good,” Ellen smiled, prompting Nicholas to retract his hand and glance elsewhere with a blush.
After his visit, Nicholas returned to the Citadel; the journey back was easier since great progress had been made in cleaning the city. He entered the southern courtyard a little hesitantly, examining each of the kingthanes milling about; none of them was the fearsome Berimund, however.
“Where you’ve been?” Quentin asked, materialising by his side. “Why did you leave? You aren’t safe on your own with that big oaf around.”
“It’s fine,” Nicholas muttered. “Just had to go see somebody.”
“Looks like we got all the more reason to split,” his friend said quietly. “Who knows if that madman is going to come back. From what I hear, he’s not the type to keep his anger in check.”
“I think it’ll be fine,” Nicholas replied. “Lord Adalbrand will protect me.”
Quentin sent him a suspicious glance. “You trust him to keep you safe? Have you been licking salt?”
“He seems to take honour and duty very importantly,” Nicholas countered. “And I’m one of his soldiers.”
“Nicholas, what’s going on?” Quentin asked with a frown. “You’re not turning pale on me, are you?”
“Look, I just don’t quite know anymore,” Nicholas said haltingly.
“We had an agreement!” Quentin exclaimed, prompting Nicholas to hush him. “In through one gate, out through the other, back to the moors.”
“A lot has changed,” Nicholas argued.
“Like what? Is Tom less dead? Is the chance of you and me being dead any less?” Quentin asked disdainfully.
“People depend on us!” Nicholas said forcefully. “Look, we lost Tom in the crossing, and it was terrible. But he was a soldier like you and me. We can’t blame our commander that soldiers died. This is war,” he tried to argue.
“Unnecessarily,” Quentin hissed. “Tom died unnecessarily. They could have let us go with the others, return to Hæthiod. We were so close by the border. All three of us could have been home by now.”
“And all of us could have died fighting at Tothmor instead of Middanhal,” Nicholas retorted. “Besides, the lieutenant was right. If you and I hadn’t been there to kill the guards last night, would the attack have gone the way it did? We’re the best archers in this army. We made it possible.”
“I don’t believe it,” Quentin shook his head. “We agreed to leave.”
“And if you want to, I won’t stop you,” Nicholas told him. “But I can’t. My place is here.”
Quentin did not answer immediately but stared at his friend with a scowl and tight lips. “If I leave, where will you find another to put up with you? I got to stay, don’t I,” he said at length.
“Thanks,” Nicholas said, wrinkling the corner of his mouth upwards.
“Don’t mention it. I mean that, don’t. I am already regretting it,” Quentin said sourly. “Come on, some of these scales want to hear how you made that shot, the one that passed an inch next to Sir Richard’s cheek. They won’t believe me, we’ll have to give them a demonstration.”
Grabbing his bow staff, Nicholas followed his friend into the courtyard.
On the morning of his return to the Citadel, Brand was moving through the various wings. He encountered a number of noblemen and noblewomen as well as their servants, many of whom expressed gratitude as they saw his Order surcoat and by his spurs knew he was newly arrived. Brand curtly nodded to them as he passed by, his mind occupied. He reached the quarters that had belonged to him and Arndis but found only her handmaiden. “Jenny,” he called out.
“Milord!” she exclaimed in surprise. “You’re back.”
“Is my sister here? In the Citadel?” he asked.
“Forgive me, she is not. I have not seen her since all this trouble began,” Jenny said apologetically.
“She has been a hostage?” Brand continued.
“I fear so, milord.”
“Well, the city is under our control. She will be returning soon, no doubt,” Brand assured himself.
“Milord!” came a man’s voice from outside.
Brand stepped outside the chamber and saw a soldier moving down the corridor. “Yes?”
“Captain requested your presence in his chambers,” the guard explained.
“Lead on,” Brand nodded.
Moving from courtside to the Order’s side of the Citadel, Brand eventually reached the quarters of the captain of the Citadel. The guard opened the door for him, revealing that besides Theobald, three other men were also present, Richard, Theodoric, and Berimund.
“Lord Adalbrand,” Theobald said gruffly, moving to his side and extending his hand. “Richard tells me I should feel indebted to you for returning the city to me.”
“I did my duty,” Brand said simply, grasping the other man by the wrist. “I can guess why you might have sought my presence here,” he continued with a glance towards Berimund, “but first I should like to enquire about the hostages. I presume they have been freed by now? Are they on their way here?”
“They are in fact why we are gathered,” Theobald answered, “and Richard insisted you would be present for this discussion. Lord Berimund came to me earlier with the same question as you, and he also desired to take part in our council.”
Brand shot Berimund a surprised look. “By all means,” the squire said, extending his hand in an invitational gesture.
“The hostages have been held in Isarn’s house ever since the feast,” Theobald explained. “They remain there still in bondage.”
“I directed two hundred men to secure the eastern city quarters, including that location,” Brand said frowning. “I was not told that they had failed.”
“I ordered them to fall back,” Theodoric said.
“Why? On what authority did you command soldiers of the Order?” Brand asked sharply, whipping his head to stare at the jarl.
“The authority of reason,” Theodoric bit back. “Once I saw the Citadel was still in Order hands, I realised the hostages would be kept in Isarn’s stronghold in the city. If we had gone through with the attack as you wanted, they would have killed their captives in retaliation.”
“Not if we had seized the place before they knew what was happening,” Brand said in anger. “We had surprise on our side, we would have overwhelmed them! You threw that away,” he added bitterly.
“The jarl did as he did out of concern for the captives,” Theobald broke through. “We are here to discuss how to best see them freed.”
“If given free passage out of the city, I am sure the remaining Isarn forces will gladly leave the hostages behind. It is a fair trade,” Theodoric argued.
“And if Jarl Isarn is in that house?” Brand asked forcefully. “Will you let him walk out of this city to continue this war?”
“He is not,” Richard inserted. “I interrogated some of the prisoners. The jarl is in the North, gathering reinforcements.”
“He must have left someone in charge of the city in his absence,” Brand considered.
“His son, Isenwald,” Richard answered.
“Then we cannot negotiate,” Brand said decisively.
“What?” Theodoric burst out. “The boy is a moron and hardly valuable to the other side. He let this city be taken, by the gods! We can only gain if we send him back and they give him new command.”
“He is Jarl Isarn’s heir,” Brand said with a clenched jaw. “An important piece on the board. He is leverage, a prisoner of utmost value to us.”
“He is right,” Richard muttered. “We will be thought of as fools if we let Isenhart’s eldest son escape our grasp. He might be used to bargain with. It will be a blow to Isarn’s morale knowing their heir is our captive.”
“So how would you do this?” Theobald asked. “They will be waiting for us now.”
“Indeed,” Brand said, sending Theodoric an angry look. “If we attack outright, they will surely kill the hostages. We will need a ploy.”
“Perhaps something could still be obtained through negotiations. If we –” Theodoric spoke, but Brand raised a hand in a silencing gesture without even looking at the jarl.
“We need uniforms. Undamaged ones from our prisoners. We disguise twenty, thirty men of our own and send them in flight towards the Isarn house, pursued by soldiers in Order surcoats. Upon approach, the Order soldiers retreat. Isarn opens the gate to allow their own men to escape into safe haven. Once inside, we strike down the guards, keep the gate open, and allow our other men in Order cloth to follow,” Brand explained.
“Hah, bold plan!” Richard exclaimed. “I will lead the charge, naturally.”
“This is insane,” Theodoric argued. “You will get all the hostages killed!”
“I fear this one will have to be mine, Sir Richard,” Brand said, ignoring the jarl. “You are well known after the solstice games, and their guards may recognise you before the gate is opened.”
“I like this plan less,” Richard grumbled.
“Is this plausible, though?” contemplated Theobald, the captain. “Will they be duped in such a manner?”
“The longer we wait, the less plausible it becomes,” Brand admitted. “We must do it now. While it still seems reasonable that some of their own might have escaped the battle in the city.”
“You all agree to this?” Theodoric said incredulously, his gaze shifting from man to man. “Lord Berimund, speak,” he implored the last person in the room.
“I will go with you,” Berimund broke his silence. “The kingthanes are the most suited warriors for such a skirmish. I will find thirty of those unwounded for you.”
For the second time, Brand gave Berimund a surprised look. “May I ask why?”
“There are people held in that house who are my responsibility,” Berimund murmured. “It is my duty to see them freed.”
“Forgive me that I am sceptic,” Brand said in a voice that held no apologetic tone. “Given our previous encounters, I shall need more weighty arguments before I walk into battle with you at my back.”
“I am a kingthane!” Berimund almost roared. “I am sworn to defend the blood of Sigvard. While the House of Adal may be gone, I am not released from my oath. Rest easy, young Arnling,” he continued, contempt dripping over upon pronunciation of Brand’s house. “You will find no more stalwart a defender than me. Regardless of my personal feelings, I would suffer a thousand torments before I see your eyes closed or those of your sister’s.”
There was silence after this outburst. Eventually, Brand nodded slightly. “Well then,” he said, sounding satisfied, “go find your men. We will meet in the courtyard anon.” Berimund did not speak in reply but simply inclined his head and departed.
“You insist on this?” Theodoric exclaimed. “You will risk the lives of everyone simply to have your way?”
“I will risk it because I must,” Brand said coldly. “You forced my hand, Jarl Theodstan, when you unlawfully assumed command over Order soldiers. I have no further time to waste,” he added. Nodding his head to Richard and Theobald, he swiftly left.
“You are not going to interfere?” Theodoric implored the other two men in the room. “You have the authority, stop this!”
“Theodoric,” Richard said brusquely, “the lad is right. This war is led by the Order, not by you. Stand down.” With those words, Richard left at a brisk pace, leaving the jarl to stare in disbelief at his margrave.
Within the hour, a large band of soldiers was gathered in the eastern part of Middanhal. After Theodoric’s interference, the Order soldiers had not ventured inside these quarters but kept a perimeter instead. It was on the edge of this that up towards a hundred soldiers stood. Seventy of them wore the black Order surcoats while thirty of them wore stolen Isarn surcoats, including Brand.
“Make some noise for us,” Brand instructed Graulf, who stood among the Order soldiers. “Wait a few moments and then pursue us. Once you are within arrow range, you retreat and keep your distance. Make it seem safe for them to open the gate. When we are inside, you storm forward.”
“Very well, milord,” Graulf said, turning towards his men. “Remember, boys, once we’re inside, don’t kill those without helmets,” he grinned. “Now make some sound!” he commanded, and the soldiers began striking their swords and shields together.
The kingthanes in their stolen attire followed Brand around the corner and ran down the street towards the Isarn compound, soon pursued by the Order soldiers with murderous intent. Approaching the gate, Brand called out to them. “Gods, man, open the gate! They’re hot on our heels!” On the estate walls, more and more Isarn soldiers began to appear. Some had bows with them and shot arrows at the pursuers; witnessing this, the Order soldiers halted and retreated out of range, allowing the distance between pursued and pursuers to grow. “Open the gate, damn you!” Brand repeated as they came close.
As the great doors opened, the soldiers hurried inside. The last of them lingered in the opening, however, keeping the gate from being closed. Without wasting a further moment, Brand removed his helmet. “Thank you,” he uttered as he used the object as a missile, hurling it at the closest man; then he drew his sword. Around him, the kingthanes did likewise, adhering to the agreed signal. Fighting erupted as the defenders realised they had been fooled; helmeted versus bareheaded soldiers in the same surcoats exchanged blows, and the Isarn soldiers came streaming from every place to surround the intruders and press them back against the gate.
For a precarious moment, it seemed as if the kingthanes might be pushed back; then Graulf arrived with the Order soldiers, roaring their battle cry, which prompted a surge forward and a chaotic skirmish to ensue across the courtyard.
“They are fighting,” Arndis exclaimed from her post at the window.
“Again? Who is attacking the city, do you think?” Eleanor asked.
“No, here!” Arndis stressed. “Not the city, here! They are attacking the house!”
Theodwyn and Eleanor rushed over to the window, pressing their faces against the glass. “How strange,” Theodwyn mumbled. “They are all Isarn soldiers fighting each other. Is this a mutiny?”
“No,” Arndis said with a smile dawning on her face. “It is a trick. They are Order soldiers in disguise,” she explained with her eyes fixed on the warriors who had removed their headgear.
“How can you tell?” Eleanor asked, straining her eyes.
“Because the one by the gate, leading the attack, is my brother,” Arndis said happily. “Brand is alive, and he is coming for me.” Below them in the courtyard, they witnessed the fight continue.
Anarchy reigned outside along with confusion. The defenders had more numbers, but the fact that some of the attackers wore the same surcoat as themselves caught many unawares. Furthermore, the kingthanes were in their element fighting hand-to-hand, and although the Isarn household troops were well trained, they simply could not measure up. Slowly, the attackers were gaining the upper hand.
A shift came as the doors to the house burst open and issued forth the remaining thanes led by Ulfrik. Elite warriors themselves, they were a better match for the kingthanes, and Ulfrik himself was fearsome in a fight; his axe clove shields and rendered flesh with impunity. His cold eyes fell upon Brand, who was using one hand to fight with his sword and the other to direct his soldiers; recognising an enemy commander, Ulfrik charged forward with his axe raised high.
As Ulfrik’s weapon came bearing down, its descent was disturbed by another weapon clashing it aside; hitherto oblivious to the danger, Brand turned and saw that Berimund had brought his own axe to the fray and now stood like a wall between the enemy thane and the dragonborn.
Each measuring their counterpart, Ulfrik and Berimund circled each other; it was bear against bear, axe against axe. With a roar, Ulfrik swung a blow that would sever a man’s throat. Berimund fell to one knee and the axe passed above his head harmlessly; carried by momentum, Ulfrik could not halt its arc soon enough to defend himself, and Berimund struck his own weapon forward into Ulfrik’s leg.
Due to his position and the awkward swing, the axe did not go deep; the worst of the blow was taken by the thane’s greave. Yet blood was drawn, and Ulfrik howled in pain as he retreated a step. Another swing, this time more testing, another evasion from Berimund. Despite his size, the captain of the kingthanes was swift as a falcon, and he retaliated each time with a blow that hit Ulfrik. This dance continued, and although Berimund could only place minor hits on his enemy, they tallied up; soon, Ulfrik was bleeding from many wounds. His strength was being sapped, while Berimund stood with ice-cold fury in his eyes, untouched and unyielding.
With a snarl, Ulfrik turned and fled. His action caught Berimund by surprise, who lost the chance of pursuit; the captain of Isarn retreated up the steps to the main entrance, followed by some of his thanes.
“Bar the doors!” Ulfrik sneered once inside. Some of the thanes that had gone with him did as ordered. Alerted by the sounds of battle, more and more people were streaming towards the entrance hall, including Isenwald.
“What – is going – on?” the young man asked.
“They are finally attacking here,” Ulfrik uttered. Blood was trickling down his forehead and into his eye; with a frustrated grunt, he threw his helmet away and wiped his brow free. “Cannot say what took them so long, but I know what to do. Stay here, do not open the doors. Ernulf,” he barked at the nearest thane, “with me!”
Without delay, he leapt up the stairs towards the upper floors where the hostages were kept. “Start cutting heads off,” Ulfrik instructed Ernulf, “and throw them out the window. Keep at it until they retreat,” he said harshly, and they separated; Ernulf went towards the nearest room, while Ulfrik moved down the hall to start their bloody work elsewhere.
“They are being pushed back,” Arndis said jubilant. “They are losing.” The three women were glued to their observation post, watching as the kingthanes and Order soldiers were slowly gaining ground. Their elation was cut short by a terrible shriek.
“That came from inside,” Eleanor said, biting her lip. “But the fighting is still outside.”
“That sounded like a woman’s voice,” Theodwyn remarked darkly.
From their position, none of the women could see a window to the east being broken open from the inside. However, when two heads were thrown outside to land in the courtyard, belonging to a woman and a small child, waves of nausea could be seen on their expressions.
“They are killing us,” Arndis breathed. Heavy footsteps could be heard thundering down the hall.
“Stand ready,” Eleanor said sharply. “I have been through worse. Keep your heads cool,” she commanded the other women as she glanced at the door; on the drawer next to it, the flowers in the vase had long since died.
The doors upstairs were all locked, and whichever guard held the keys had vanished. Ulfrik was not deterred, however. Ernulf had started from one end of the hall and so Ulfrik ran down its length and chose another room. Swiftly, he smashed the lock on the door into pieces with his axe.
Pushing what remained open with his boot, Ulfrik saw two women standing by a window. One, clad in black, looked at him defiantly; the other woman was the dragonborn that had embarrassed him weeks earlier. With his mouth curling upwards, Ulfrik stepped inside and lifted his axe.
As soon as he was past the door, Eleanor emerged and crashed a vase down on the back of his unprotected head. The blow sent him hurling forward, dropping his axe as he landed on all fours. With a well-aimed kick that defied what her dress was tailored to allow, Arndis brought her heel against Ulfrik’s head and sent him tumbling on his back. Theodwyn meanwhile grabbed his axe and raised it with some effort.
“Lie still,” Theodwyn hissed as Ulfrik stirred.
“You are a woman,” Ulfrik growled. “Do not make me laugh.”
Quickly, Theodwyn placed the axe ready at Ulfrik’s exposed throat. “When I was nine, my father had me kill a chicken. He said I should know how it felt. All these years, I thought he was mad,” she said with a sweet smile. “Now lie still,” she added with steel in her voice.
Other screams could be heard again. “They have not stopped,” Eleanor expressed with anguish. Arndis’ eyes darkened and, reaching a decision, she stormed away. “Arndis!” Eleanor called out after her, but to no avail.
Running down the hallway, Arndis closed her eyes as she ran past the open doors and reached the stairway. Making the journey down in several leaps, she reached the entrance hall and found Isenwald and his remaining soldiers forming ranks and preparing to defend the doors. Outside, the sounds of battle could be heard, deafening all else.
“My lady, it – is not safe,” Isenwald began to speak as he saw Arndis; she in turn steered directly towards him and grabbed the edges of his surcoat.
“If you want me dead, do it yourself!” she screamed at him. “And if my blood has any power, then I curse you with all its strength! A curse on House Isarn for shedding innocent blood!”
“My lady,” Isenwald said bewildered. “I – do not wish – you harm. Please return upstairs.”
“Then why are your thanes killing all the prisoners!” Arndis retorted with tears of frustration in her eyes.
Glancing towards the stairway in the direction Ulfrik and Ernulf had disappeared, Isenwald frowned; he reached his hands up to gently take hold of Arndis’ wrists and make her release her hold on him. “You lot,” he commanded, freeing one hand to gesture at a handful of his men. “Ensure the safety of our guests. Kill my thanes if they attempt to harm them.” The soldiers exchanged glances of confusion. “Understood?” Isenwald yelled, and they hastily departed. “Open the doors,” Isenwald ordered afterwards, turning towards the entrance to the house. Again, the soldiers hesitated. “Open the doors, you fools,” he shouted, and they finally complied.
As the doors opened, they revealed the scores of men still fighting. Isenwald ran outside, raising his open hands high. “Stop fighting,” he roared louder than he had ever spoken in his life. “Men of Isarn, lay down your arms!”
Uncertainty spread like ripples in water from where Isenwald stood until it sank in; one by one, the Isarn soldiers lowered their weapons and eventually dropped them. “Who – is your commander?” Isenwald asked the nearest Order soldier.
“I am,” Brand stated, stepping forward.
Isenwald approached him, unbuckling his sword belt. He knelt and presented the sheathed sword to Brand. “On behalf – of my father, Jarl – Isenhart – of – Isarn, I surrender his forces,” Isenwald declared.
With a nod, Brand accepted the sword and the surrender with his free hand. “Round them up,” he said over his shoulder to his men. “Keep their soldiers here, but bring this one to the Citadel. Make sure the hostages are safe.”
If Brand had intended to say more, such words became stuck in his throat; a shape wearing a dress came out of the house to stand on the steps, looking completely out of place; a flower amidst a desert of blood and war. Dropping both Isenwald’s sheathed and his own naked sword, Brand closed the distance with a few long strides and embraced his sister tightly.