The Velvet Glove
Earlier that week, while Athelstan was preparing his assault on Middanhal, the Vale army was still recovering from its defeat and had retreated into the safety of Coldharbour, tending to their wounded. Other than that, they had done little else except cause trouble for the local inhabitants. The appearance of Athelstan, his capture of the siege camp and its engines, his usurpation of their stated goal of besieging Middanhal, all of it had left Konstantine aimless.
Coldharbour was not large enough to warrant an Order garrison; it did not hold specific strategic interest like Tricaster, and it was not considered a source of sedition. It had a small keep manned by soldiers employed by the jarl of Vale, and the rest of the city was built around its harbour. From the east, the river Cudrican streamed towards the city and here met the great river Mihtea. That river in turn flowed through Middanhal southwest in this direction, and just north of Coldharbour, the river made a sharp drop. This kept ships from sailing further up the river; hence, any shipped goods destined for Middanhal had to stop at Coldharbour and continue over land. Considering the endless stream of trade flowing towards Middanhal, this was an oft occurrence, at least in times of peace. Now, the only ships that docked in Coldharbour were those belonging to the jarl of Vale, and their purpose was not trade but war.
Since the port was the very foundation of the existence of Coldharbour, nearly everything in the city was directed towards it. The keep was not part of the city walls and outer fortifications as in many other places; instead it was built separately inside the city, central to the location of the harbour so that its towers had full vision and reach of the many ships moored by its piers. The grandest house lay right by the water and belonged to the alderman of the guilds, the highest local authority in Coldharbour. The guilds chose the alderman and thus the ruler of the city; however, since the city lay in the jarldom of Vale, the alderman was also the jarl’s representative and to some extent accountable to the jarl for how the city was run.
Konstantine had eschewed staying at the keep, opting for the more luxurious rooms available at the alderman’s estate; as the heir to the jarl and thus his future lord, the alderman had not been in a position to refuse. Arion, an ever-present shadow to Konstantine, had also been given a room in that house with a desk to write his reports. When not occupied with such, the chamberlain could usually be found on the roof of the house, watching the docks.
Finally, some days after the arrival of the Vale army to Coldharbour, Arion walked slowly through the corridors of the house until he reached Konstantine’s room. He knocked loudly, waiting for an answer. When he was not given leave to enter, Arion knocked again with increased fervour.
“What is it,” a voice yelled from inside, which, despite it being noon, sounded rusty from sleep.
“Milord, you should prepare,” Arion said through the closed door.
The sound of shuffling could be heard before the door opened to reveal Konstantine wearing a nightshirt. As one hand opened the door, the other reached out to grab a wine skin. “What?” the youth asked surly.
“A ship has just docked,” Arion began to explain.
“Hardly worth disturbing me for,” Konstantine complained.
“Upon its mast is the personal banner of Vale,” Arion elaborated.
The wine skin almost slipped through Konstantine’s hand. “My father or my uncle?”
“Who can say?” Arion shrugged in ignorance.
“I need to get to the keep,” Konstantine said, glancing around as if searching for something. “And clothes,” he added, putting the wine away to pull his nightshirt over his head.
“I doubt that will be necessary,” Arion told him, turning around while the young nobleman changed clothes. “Whoever is arriving, I expect they will come straight here.”
“How can they know I am here?” Konstantine asked puzzled, pausing his movements out of bewilderment.
“I wrote it in the accounts I send to your uncle, naturally,” Arion said with a voice carrying the tone of explaining something obvious. “He or your father should be here any moment. You should finish getting dressed, milord,” he added with a smile that Konstantine could not see.
The alderman, his family, his servants, and his guests were all gathered in the main hall of his home to welcome the visiting dignitary. Despite the number of people present, silence reigned; nothing could be heard except the disharmonious breathing of every person in the room. Thus, it was easy to hear as heavy steps thundered down the hallway outside until finally, the doors slammed open. In walked Konstans, flanked by two thanes.
The alderman moved forward cautiously, anxiously, but he barely had time to open his mouth and greet the visitor before he was stopped. “Leave us,” Konstans said harshly. Although he said nothing else, his eyes were fixed on Konstantine; there was no doubt that the youth was the one person meant to stay. The rest nervously filtered towards the nearest doors until Konstans was alone with his son.
“Father,” Konstantine began to speak. Before he could act or react further, Konstans crossed the distance between them with alacrity and gave his son a backhanded slap across the face with enough force to send the youth to the floor.
“Do not dare to speak,” Konstans said with ice in his voice. “You inbred imbecile. You are no son of mine. How could you act with such unbridled, undiluted stupidity!” The final words were spoken with a roar as his temper was unleashed.
“But Father,” Konstantine winced as he lay on his back.
“All that I have worked for all these years, you throw away at a moment’s notice! I should have you on the rack for this. No, thrown in the stocks and let every beggar spit on you,” Konstans said with malice. He walked over to where Konstantine lay on the floor, and the latter gasped and shook with fear, raising his hands to shield his face. It was not necessary, however, as Konstans did not strike him further; instead, he crouched down and spoke with a whisper. “Know this, boy,” he said with venom in his voice, “the fact that you are my son would not have spared you from my wrath. Only because you are my brother’s heir, and I have no patience for our cousins and their dullard offspring, will you not be stripped of your name and sent into exile. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Father,” Konstantine whimpered.
“Now I must figure out how to resolve this,” Konstans said, speaking mostly to himself as he straightened up and began to pace around the room.
“Father, I am sorry,” Konstantine said, stressing each word. He pulled himself up to sit on the floor rather than lie prone and raised his eyes towards his father. “I did not know Athelstan was coming. When they attacked, everything happened so swiftly, and it was lost before I knew anything.”
Konstans ceased walking and turned to send his son a cold stare. “You think that your defeat is the source of my displeasure? Are you really so witless?” When Konstantine could not find anything to answer with, his father spoke again. “While you were a fool to allow Athelstan to ambush you, I should not have expected differently. That is what happens when you send a boy against a man,” he said disdainfully. “No, what angered me was your moment of boundless folly when you decided to besiege Middanhal.”
“But that is what you sent me here to do,” Konstantine said bewildered.
“No, you dolt,” Konstans roared again, “I sent you to isolate Middanhal! Block the connection between Isarn’s lands and Athelstan’s army, help starve him out. The Order had already done that for us, how is this beyond your mental grasp?”
“I thought they would lose the city again,” Konstantine tried to explain. “They cannot be many to defend it. They refused to let us enter. They wanted me to give up command, to take the army from me.”
“Then you should have stalled,” Konstans said, his voice constantly on the verge of breaking into a yell. “Withdrawn, delayed, pretended misunderstanding. Anything but what you actually did. How could you ever have thought that attacking the Order was a good choice of action?” When Konstantine did not readily reply, his father urged him on. “I am serious. What moronic idea possessed you? Make me understand, my son.” The last word was spoken with a sneer.
“If we controlled the city,” Konstantine spoke, “we could do what Isarn tried to do.” His voice had trembled at first, but now it became steady. “Rule the Adalthing, bend them to our will.”
“And make your uncle king,” Konstans finished the line of thought, though contempt was present in his tone. “With you as his heir. How vulgarly transparent of you.”
“Does that matter if it worked?” Konstantine dared to ask as he finally stood up. He was not quite as tall as his father, however, and he still had to look up to him.
“You are as ignorant as that swartling Isarn,” Konstans exclaimed. “I see I must explain in detail.” He slowly released his breath before he spoke again in a malicious tone. “The king of this realm is called the Dragon of Adalrik. He wears the Dragon Crown, he sits upon the Dragon Throne. Do you see the imagery at work here?” he asked with an acidic voice. “Only a dragonborn may take that seat, wear that crown, hold that title. Yes, we may force the Adalthing into submission, but many of the nobles will demur at this. Do you truly think the Order, the guilds, or even the common rabble on the streets will accept anything but a true atheling of Sigvard to rule?” Konstans exhaled, making the sound into a scoff. “No, we must respect how Sigvard’s line have played this. They have managed to secure their grasp on the throne exceedingly well.”
“But Isarn –” Konstantine tried to object.
His father cut him off. “Isarn is a fool! ‘Ironfist’ indeed. He understands no other way to rule but by dictate and brute force. Do you not understand, Konstantine, the hand that rules with a velvet glove wields infinitively more power. Forcing people to do your bidding can be done by any brute, but it will only last until a stronger man takes it from you. No,” Konstans shook his head, “you must rule so that people desire to be ruled by you. So that there is no better alternative. So that they obey your wishes without questioning it.”
“Sorry, Father,” Konstantine mumbled. “I see that it was a mistake to try and emulate Isarn.”
“That is not even half of it,” his father said harshly. “Do you still not realise the depth of your ineptitude? You are wearing my patience thin,” he sneered. “Do you not understand that Isarn had one chance to do this right? Seize Middanhal, have himself declared king, execute all those against him, ourselves included. The moment that we escaped, he lost his chance. Now the South is rising against him, and he has made himself an enemy of the Order.”
Konstans paused briefly before continuing, glancing towards the windows that allowed light to enter the hall. “It was the greatest gift that refuse of a jarl could have given us,” he spat out. “All we had to do was endure. Survive, let Isarn wear himself out. By rebelling, he made it the Order’s priority to defeat his armies, seize his lands, and place him in chains. Sooner or later, the Order armies in Herbergja and Fontaine would have responded. Our combined armies would have crushed Isarn, and the result would be an Adalthing devoid of our greatest foe and all of his influence. Whatever we desired could have been ours, all within the confines of the law,” Konstans elaborated.
“But now,” he continued with weary anger, “now you have done the same. Attacked the Order, made us traitors. You discarded our greatest advantage,” he spoke, and there was almost a sense of disbelief in his voice. “Even if we survive this, the Order, the Adalthing, the people, all will view us with extreme distrust. And to the south, that slime Adelard of Korndale is waiting for his opportunity. Now, he may not even need pretext,” Konstans exclaimed. “With half the realm declared traitors, it only takes one marshal to send a letter to Korndale and request the king’s assistance in Adalrik. The Order will practically throw it into his lap, and that Dalish silkworm will have what he has been salivating to get all his life!”
“I am sorry, Father,” Konstantine managed to stammer as realisation finally struck him.
“You will be,” Konstans promised with a dark look in his eyes. “But first I must salvage this. Keep the Order from declaring us outlaws. Prevent the rest of Adalrik from seeing us as usurpers. And do it swiftly before that slug Adelard is shaken out of his stupor and realises the realm has been served to him on a platter!”
Konstantine did not speak again upon hearing the ire in his father’s words, who in turn recommenced pacing back and forth. At length he stopped and walked over to one of the doors, tearing it open. On the other side stood Arion, the alderman, and various others, mostly servants. They all fluttered away, blushing, except Arion, who simply faced his master. “Arion,” Konstans said curtly, and the chamberlain stepped forward to enter the hall. “The atheling houses, Arnling and Hardling.”
“Who are their lords?” Konstans asked.
“As I recall from the Adalthing,” Arion frowned, “House Arnling is led by Adalbrand.”
“Presumptuous name,” the nobleman snorted.
“He is around twenty, maybe a little older,” the chamberlain estimated as he dug out facts from his memory. “Has a sister. He is a soldier in the Order like his predecessors.”
“Useless,” Konstans said dismissively. “He is probably dead at Lake Myr or running around somewhere on the moors. Hardling?”
“The old lord died last year, I recall, hunting accident,” Arion said contemplatively. “His eldest son is very young, seventeen perhaps. He has an older sister and two younger brothers, I believe.”
“Good,” Konstans nodded. “Young, easier to control, and with brothers to spare, considering the dragonborn are dying like flies. Would our young Lord Hardling be in Middanhal?”
“No, milord,” Arion shook his head. “You reached out to him after the funeral of the prince in order to secure his support, but he had already left for Hardburg with his family.”
“Hardburg,” Konstans muttered, “only a few days’ ride from here. If you beat your horse enough,” he added pensively. “Give me solitude,” he said abruptly in a louder voice, and both Arion and Konstantine left the hall.
A quarter of an hour passed in the hallway. The only sound that could be heard from outside the door to the hall was Konstans walking around the room. With the spectacle over, the inhabitants of the house had dispersed, and only Arion and Konstantine remained. Finally, the door was pulled open with unnecessary force, revealing Konstans behind it. “Arion,” the nobleman said curtly, “procure three fresh horses for me. Same number for my two thanes. I ride to Hardburg myself.”
“Milord,” Arion obeyed, bowing and leaving at once.
“As for you,” Konstans continued with an embittered look at his son, “you will gather those feeble buffoons acting as your lieutenants and prepare the army. If Athelstan is besieging Middanhal, we must act quickly. Begin the march towards the capital immediately, but do not engage him. Keep a day’s march between your forces and his, do you understand?” he said with a savage undercurrent in his voice.
“Yes, Father,” Konstantine murmured.
“Do nothing until I arrive. Gods help you if you make another mistake, for I will not,” he warned before he left with haste.
As Konstans commanded, so it was done. While he rode to Hardburg with a few attendants, his son had the remainder of Vale’s northern forces assembled from the various taverns, alehouses, and places of ill repute in Coldharbour that had enjoyed their patronage these last days. While the defeat suffered at Athelstan’s hands had caused casualties, those numbers had not been high; in fact, more soldiers had most likely been lost to desertion in the aftermath. Still, more than three thousand remained in fighting condition.
Furthermore, Konstans had not arrived alone either. With Athelstan’s army gone from the South, there was no need to keep the southern lands and cities heavily garrisoned. All the soldiers conscripted in the last weeks had been placed on transports and travelled with Konstans to Coldharbour. All in all, another three thousand stood ready and followed Konstantine on the march east, an army with the numbers to match Athelstan’s or the Order’s.
After five days, they were close to Middanhal. There was no sign of the Isarn army, however; the scouts returned only with reports of empty roads and fields. Fearing to be ambushed as before, Konstantine did not move his army closer towards Middanhal but ordered it to remain in camp. A few more days passed without event; then finally his father joined him. Konstans did not arrive alone but accompanied by other banners than his own. Within the hour, the army was breaking camp and preparing to march towards the capital.