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The Greater Foe

Middanhal

In the capital, the Order was taking full advantage of the respite given to them. While none of the commanders could divine why Vale’s army was remaining camped a few days out and not making any move, they were grateful for the extra time to prepare. Richard had arrived with the main army, meaning that Middanhal finally had a full garrison with every tower, wall, and post manned. Add to that, more levies from Theodstan had arrived at the same time to bolster their forces, and the Order now had about six thousand men at their disposal.

With the threat from Silfrisarn lessened and the northern gate open, more than soldiers from Theodstan entered Middanhal. Travellers of a more peaceful nature were allowed inside as well. Among them was a tall, thin beggar wearing a blindfold; he was accompanied by a boy of some fourteen years, dressed in the robes of a Temple novice. They did not venture that far along the Arnsweg, however, but merely followed its curve around the Citadel until they reached the entrance to the southern courtyard. Here, the beggar hesitated and halted his step.

“What’s wrong?” Egil asked puzzled.

“My task was to investigate the truth concerning your dead prince and to see you safely returned,” Ælfwine began to explain. “Taking you to the very gate of the Citadel should fulfil the latter part. You may relate all we have learned to your master, which should fulfil the former part.”

“But my master would give anything to speak to you,” Egil urged. “There is so much you might tell us, so many gaps to fill.”

“I know little of the history of your kind,” Ælfwine argued. “Besides, I meant what I once told you. My kind belongs in the legends and old tales. We have no wish to interfere with the rest of the world any longer.”

“But –” Egil tried to object.

“Remember your promise,” Ælfwine said sternly. “You will keep my confidence.”

“I remember,” Egil said a little sullenly.

“Good,” the Elf replied with an inkling of a smile.

Ælfwine turned to leave, but he was held back by Egil quickly speaking again. “Will we ever meet again?” the boy asked.

“Considering the only reasons I would venture south of the forest, I hope not,” came the reply; with no further words, Ælfwine crouched a little, leaned against his staff, and transformed himself into a beggar once more. The last that Egil saw of him, he walked at the edge of the street between the Citadel wall and a company of soldiers marching past. For a moment, due to his height, the tip of his hat was visible; a moment later, not even that could be seen.

Egil stood as if daydreaming for a while, staring at nothing; then he was brought awake by soldiers pushing him aside as they walked into the courtyard while laughing crudely. Composing himself, Egil grimaced at the soldiers before he too stepped forward, returning home.

~~~~

When Richard returned to Middanhal, he was not only accompanied by Order soldiers, reinforcements from Theodstan, and errant apprentices; Theodoric had also been part of the retinue. He went straight to his chambers and found them empty save Holwine. They greeted each other discreetly upon this reunion and gave no sign that they were anything other than master and servant. Holwine was as customary dressed in men’s clothing and with a cap hiding her hair. “My compliments on your victory,” she smiled, giving a little bow in a manner that made it seem like a jest.

“Thank you,” the jarl responded. “My sister is not here?”

“She is with friends,” Holwine explained. “The Arnling girl and the veiled one from the heath.”

“I will see her later, I suppose.”

“No doubt,” Holwine assented before changing the topic and her tone of voice as it grew discerning. “You do not seem like a man satiated with victory, returning from a battle won.”

“I am pleased that we won, naturally,” Theodoric tried to explain, sitting down on a chair and wringing his hands as if seized by indecisiveness. “I only worry what the consequences might be in the long term.”

“What might they be?” Holwine asked.

“We defeated Isenhart, but he is not the man that concerns me,” Theodoric admitted.

“Sir Athelstan,” his servant guessed.

“He is twice the commander that his brother is. He proved that against Marcaster. Now I am told that he is close, having almost retaken the city with but a few days of assault,” the jarl exclaimed, gesturing wildly. “While he may have retreated for now, it is a short-lived reprieve. He controls all of Ingmond. Plenty of supplies and winter quarters for his troops. Sooner or later, we will have to face him in battle.”

“I understand your reluctance, milord, given Sir Athelstan’s reputation,” Holwine said slowly, “but he cannot be invincible. Your soldiers proved themselves against Jarl Isenhart. Sir Richard is a strong warrior, we all know this. He also seems most capable as a captain.”

“That is my concern,” Theodoric professed. “Richard is captain in name only. He fights on the front line while every command, every strategy is decided by his young and most inexperienced lieutenant.”

“The young dragonborn?” Holwine frowned. “I have heard what I assumed were rumours and exaggerations only.”

“Perhaps to some extent, but not entirely. All of Richard’s decisions have come from his mind,” Theodoric confided in her. “There is barely any pretence left. Adalbrand simply commands, and Richard obeys like any other soldier.”

“But is there harm in this?” Holwine ventured to ask at length. “Does the victory against Jarl Isenhart not show that he is capable, at least?”

“He is,” Theodoric admitted, “but against Athelstan? The lad was Athelstan’s squire, did you know? It is quite natural that he would possess some tricks passed down by that old wolf, but do you trust a twenty-year-old squire to lead our armies to victory against the most feared commander in the realms?”

“I would not bet heavily on those odds,” Holwine acknowledged.

“In some ways, the victory against Isenhart might be detrimental to our cause,” Theodoric stated. “It has only affirmed Richard’s belief in Adalbrand. He is deaf to all concerns. And the soldiers, I have seen them in camp when our young lieutenant approaches. They greet him by beating fist against chest as a true atheling of Sigvard.”

“You fear he is growing proud?”

“How could he not?” Theodoric asked rhetorically. “Even his very name, Adalbrand, is arrogance incarnate. I knew his father, Arngrim, to some extent. What was he ever thinking to invoke the House of Adal through his son’s name?” The jarl shook his head. “None of his predecessors, none of the atheling houses ever dared to do so before. Which leads to my greatest fear.”

“Milord?” Holwine said questioningly.

“Isenhart has set a dangerous precedent, seizing the capital to force himself into power. When that happened, I sought the aid of the Order,” Theodoric explained. “It is their task to prevent this. But young Adalbrand, he seems to have the full support of the only Order army in Adalrik. Should he seize Middanhal, what army is going to stop him?” the jarl contemplated. “Vale, Isarn, Arnling. A pack of wolves tearing the realm apart.”

“Then it is good that the jarl of Theodstan is more cunning than all of them combined,” Holwine said reassuringly. “That same jarl will use his skills to keep the realm together.”

Theodoric looked up with a half-hearted smile. “Ten years ago, I would have been one of those wolves. When I was dragonlord, I schemed with more delight and fervour than the villains of those dreadful stage plays from Fontaine.”

“I recall,” Holwine said with a grin. “Those were indeed delightful days. What prompted this change of heart, if I may ask?”

“It was my fault,” Theodoric said, his voice faltering. “It is my fault.”

“Pardon, milord?” Holwine frowned.

“The war in Heohlond. This succession crisis. All of it.” The jarl scratched his forehead and ran his hand through his hair. “Years of strife, civil war. I caused it.”

“Forgive me, but how could that be possible?” Holwine asked sceptically.

“It was I who was supposed to go when Clan Boyd caused trouble near the border to Adalrik. As jarl of Theodstan, it was my duty to handle the matter,” he spoke with a voice that slowly grew quieter. “But I was too occupied in Middanhal with all my plots and ploys, so I convinced the king to send his son. Told him it would be valuable experience for Prince Sigmar to understand the subjects he would one day rule, to resolve their issues. I sent my friend to his death,” he breathed.

“And war erupted in Heohlond,” Holwine concluded his story.

“Yet the gods have not finished toying with me,” Theodoric continued, speaking with a normal voice. “The first Adalthing that I attend in years, I ensure the election of the lord marshal as lord protector. What happens next? Invasion of Hæthiod, the marshal leaves the realm, and soon after, our young prince is slain. Killed on the road to Valcaster where I had sent him. My dealings, my schemes placed that boy on that road,” the jarl spoke softly while staring into air. “Now we are at war yet again because of me.”

“You could never have predicted any of this,” Holwine tried to argue.

“That does not seem to matter to the gods,” the jarl replied with an empty smile, finally turning his head to look at her.

Before either of them could speak further, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Holwine walked over and opened it. “Captain Theobald requests the jarl’s presence in his chambers,” a soldier informed her. “There’s been a message he should hear.”

“Thank you,” Theodoric said from inside the room, standing up. “Tell Theodwyn I will see her later,” he asked of Holwine before he left, walking with a slow pace towards the captain’s quarters.

~~~~

When Theodoric arrived at his destination, he saw Theobald, Richard, Brand, and Fionn already present. “I hear word of a message?” the jarl said questioningly, looking around.

The captain nodded. “Arrived not long ago, earlier today,” he said gruffly. “Thought you should all hear. It was one of the soldiers at Saltgate that brought it. It seems we have envoys from Vale seeking to negotiate with us.”

“I wonder if it will go better than last time,” Fionn remarked with coarse laughter.

“The emissary mentioned Lord Konstans himself as the one wishing to speak with us,” Theobald elaborated. “The jarl’s brother.”

“A shrewd man if nothing else,” Theodoric stated. “It may be worth hearing what he has to say.”

“Are we going to simply forget that less than two weeks ago, Vale’s army was besieging us?” Fionn growled. “Unless this Konstans is here to beg forgiveness, I am not inclined to listen to anything he has to say.”

“From what I understand,” Theodoric interceded with a calming voice, “they did not actually make an assault upon Middanhal.”

“Only because Athelstan interfered before they could begin,” Richard snorted.

“Regardless, no blows were actually struck. Perhaps we should not dismiss what aid the jarl of Vale can bring,” Theodoric claimed, sending a glance towards Brand. “Provided these negotiations turn out to be reasonable, of course.”

“I think the esteemed jarl has a point,” Brand acknowledged, prompting Theodoric to give him another glance, one born of surprise. “We must not forget that there is war in Hæthiod as well. The longer this kin strife drags on, the greater toll it will take on the Order. Fighting two wars in different realms,” the squire concluded.

“We will hear what Lord Konstans has to say,” Theobald declared, “and see if some understanding may be reached. Gods know I would rather face Athelstan with Vale’s forces at my side than against me.”

“Fine,” Richard exclaimed a little surly. “Let this excuse of a daleman speak. But he better be on his knees, grovelling,” the knight warned with a contemptuous look before he turned and left the room. The other men exchanged looks but followed suit, heading towards the southern gate.

~~~~

In the southern courtyard, the soldiers and servants could witness the leaders of the Order make their way out of the Citadel. Several of those present were the Hæthian longbowmen, practising their craft; they paused briefly upon seeing men of high rank before resuming their training. Normally, the archers of the garrison trained in a hall inside the Citadel built for that very purpose; however, with the sun shining and the weather warm, the bowmen had devised their own range in the southern courtyard along one of the walls, shooting against targets supported by bales of hay.

Some clothes, including an Isarn surcoat, had been stuffed full of straw into the image of a soldier and now served as the current target. As was their wont, the longbowmen were having improvised competitions. Nicholas and Quentin were among them, using the opportunity to retell the story of their nightly assault upon Middanhal and how they had become heroes of the city.

Quentin had just shot his arrow into one of the crude eyes painted upon the target, and picking up his quiver, he stepped away from the line with a satisfied smile. Nicholas moved forward to take his place, but before he could shoot, Quentin placed a hand on his arm. “Nicholas,” he said with caution in his voice.

As Nicholas turned to gaze in the same direction as his friend, his eyes widened in fear at the sight; Berimund, tall and fierce as ever with his axe on his back, was striding straight towards him. Nicholas involuntarily backed a few steps until he hit the courtyard wall. Quentin grabbed the feather of an arrow in his quiver with two fingers and let go with his other fingers so that the case and remaining arrows dropped to the ground. With a grim look in his face, Quentin readied it on the bowstring, though he did not yet draw it back.

Berimund stopped a few paces away; the other archers, sensing something afoot, all gazed intently on the kingthane. From a pocket underneath his leather tunic, Berimund dug something out. At first, his large hand concealed it, but as he stretched out, the shape of a figurine could be determined with its ivory white colour reflecting the sun. “This belongs to you,” Berimund said gruffly, extending his hand towards Nicholas even as he glanced elsewhere. “I spoke with the tavern keeper,” the kingthane offered as his only explanation.

The archer wore an expression completely devoid of understanding until his eyes finally fell on the statuette. With halting steps, he moved forward and accepted the small trophy from Berimund. “Thank you, milord,” Nicholas mumbled, frowning at the situation. “I appreciate the courtesy,” he added with some relief in his voice.

“Do you have any idea who stole it from you in the first place?” Berimund asked, finally looking at the archer. “The owner of the tavern was of no use.”

“Someone else in the games. Someone who thought they deserved it more than me,” Nicholas guessed; by his side, Quentin relaxed a little, finally removing the arrow from his bow. “They took our names when we entered the tournament. If they still have that list, it might tell you who you seek.”

“I had not thought of that,” Berimund frowned. “That is not bad advice.”

The kingthane almost turned to walk away, but he was halted as Nicholas spoke again. “Milord, the prince travelled in a closed carriage, did he not?”

“Of course,” Berimund answered, frowning. “Except for the window through which the arrow struck.”

“Was it standing still?” Nicholas asked next.

“To some extent,” Berimund replied. “The driver was dead, but the horses became uneasy at the commotion and began to move about.”

“In that case, milord, you need not bother consulting the list. Whoever it was that…” Nicholas made an awkward pause, clearing his throat. “…killed the prince, they would have to be the best marksman I have seen. If such a man had entered the solstice games, he would have won, no doubt about it.”

“How so?” Berimund asked, the frown returning to his face. “I saw you hit that rabbit in flight.”

“True,” Nicholas nodded. “But that was out in the open, I had ample time to take aim, and I was not under threat from being attacked. Striking a moving target through a small opening with only a sliver of a moment to shoot your bow,” Nicholas pointed out, “that takes enormous skill. Not to mention, the archer would have to creep close.”

“Why?” Berimund asked. “We would have caught anybody close by.”

“Of course,” Nicholas quickly agreed. “It just seems necessary for the angle of the shot. Because of the opening,” he added, seeing the perplexed expression on the kingthane’s face. “An arrow flies in an arc such as this.” With a moment’s notice, Nicholas readied an arrow, pulled back, and sent it towards the other end of the range. It flew upwards until it reached the high point of its arc and descended steadily, striking into the chest of the straw target.

“But shooting through a small opening, such as a carriage window, that does not allow for much of an arc,” Nicholas elaborated. “You would have to be fairly close in order to shoot your arrow straight ahead with barely any rise or fall. Otherwise it will not pass through the opening and strike a target behind it. Unless the prince was standing right by the window, of course,” Nicholas considered.

“He was not,” Berimund clarified, his frown deepening. He grabbed the arrow that Quentin had been holding and prodded its tip against the palm of his other hand, simulating various arcs. Without further words, the kingthane turned and left, still poking the arrowhead in different ways against his hand.

Behind him, Quentin opened his mouth to object as he watched the other man leave with his arrow. A few frustrated sounds escaped the heathman before he abandoned the thought. “Never mind,” he scowled. “It’s your turn, Nicholas,” Quentin nodded towards the straw target placed against the bales of hay, which still had one eye pierced by his own arrow. “One eagle says you can’t hit the other eye.”

“One eagle?” Nicholas repeated as a grin broke out on his face. He grabbed an arrow and notched it on his bow. “Easiest silver I ever made,” he bragged as he pulled back the string. He spent a moment taking aim and let his arrow fly.

~~~~

If somebody had stood by one of the windows in the library tower, they could have witnessed the spectacle in the courtyard. All those inside the library were too occupied with other matters to be idly gazing out the window, however. This was also the reason why nobody noticed as the door opened; the shuffle of chairs and people moving masked the sound of hinges in use.

Thus, when Egil stepped inside, nobody spotted him immediately; he in turn had plenty of opportunity to gaze around and take in the sight of several girls reading, writing with unsteady hands, or moving books around. A look of confusion left him with his mouth slightly open and his eyes crossed in a frown. Then he was tackled by a shape roughly same size as himself.

“Egil!” Kate exclaimed in a high-pitched voice as she hugged him tightly. He stumbled backwards, almost falling, and was only saved by the door behind him as it kept him upright.

“Hallo, Kate,” he croaked as she squeezed the air out of him. “Good to see you too.” She finally gave him room to breathe as she took a step back, and he once more glanced around the room. “What is… this?” he ended up asking, struggling to finish the sentence.

“Well, on Rilday, after we’ve been to the Temple, we sneak in some time up here. I think Cook knows, but she doesn’t mind as long as we finish our duties on time,” Kate explained happily. “Of course, we sometimes end up having to stay past first bell in the kitchen, but it’s nice to be here during the day. It can get a little cold in the evening.”

“But,” Egil stammered, “you’re reading. All of you. Kitchen girls.”

“Of course,” Kate said dismissively. “All it takes are two eyes. We got that as much as any other. Though I suppose you could get by even with just one eye,” she contemplated. “As long as you can see the letters. What about you?” she exclaimed. “How was your journey? Where did you go? Did you experience anything exciting?”

“It was long,” Egil confessed. “We went to Heohlond. Plenty of excitement, which I will tell you about later. First I have to see my master.”

“Master Quill is in the scriptorium,” Kate told him, pointing at the closed door. “I should probably go, plenty of work to do in the kitchen. See you tonight when I’m done?”

“Sure,” Egil said, sounding a little distracted, but he composed himself enough to give her a smile. “I’ll be here.”

“Great,” Kate said. She hesitated a moment before speaking again. “I’m really glad you’re back, Egil.”

They separated; one left the tower, the other entered the scriptorium. “Master?” Egil said questioningly, peering inside. At one of the desks sat the aged, bronze-tanned scribe in his dark red robe, his feather pen carefully dancing across a page and leaving a trace of ink to immortalise the events of the past month.

Hearing his title spoken, Quill raised his head with a smile. “Egil?” he said before he even turned to look. With joy spread across his face, the scribe rose from his seat and stepped away from the desk.

Egil walked over towards him and inclined his head. “I’m back, master.”

“Welcome home,” Quill smiled, placing one hand on his shoulder.

“I have a lot to tell you, master,” Egil professed.

“Sit down,” Quill gestured towards a chair. “Tell me everything from the start.”

~~~~

A collection of Middanhal’s foremost defenders was found assembled on top of the gatehouse in the afternoon that day. The captain of the Citadel and his current second-in-command; the commander of the Order armies and his first lieutenant; finally, the jarl of Theodstan. They watched as the delegation from Vale, which had been waiting a small distance from the gate, approached flying different banners. One of these was the flag of truce with its white horse head. The other was deep blue with a brown boar as its emblem.

“I thought we were meeting Jarl Vale’s brother,” Richard muttered. “What is this banner?”

“House Hardling,” Theobald replied. “A boar on blue background. The only other house wearing the blue,” he added with a glance towards Brand.

“Right, Hardling, the old boar,” Richard mumbled. “What is he doing here?”

“He is dead,” Fionn corrected him. “Last year while hunting. A boar skewered him on its tusks. Did you not hear? People marvelled so at the coincidence, they did not know whether to grieve or laugh.”

“That does not answer the question of why Hardling is involved,” Theodoric said contemplatively. “Regardless, that is Lord Konstans riding in front. I recognise him.”

“And that brat of his by his side,” Fionn said contemptuously. “Him I recognise from our last little get-together.”

“My lords,” Arion called out. “My lord and master Konstans of the House of Vale seeks an audience.”

“He is free to speak,” Theobald replied. “He may know that his words will be heard by both the captain of the Citadel and the commander of the Order in Adalrik, who has just returned from a victory against Jarl Isarn on the battlefield.”

“That is joyous news,” Konstans spoke, leading his horse a few paces forward to be positioned in front of his group. “It is for this reason we have come that we might offer aid as loyal subjects of the Crown. We all desire to see an end to this rebellion.”

“Curious,” Fionn called out. “That is not the impression we got last time your men were at our walls.”

“With whom do I have the honour of speaking?” Konstans asked mildly.

“I am Sir Fionn, knight of the Order of Adal,” came the reply. “We have not met before since I have spent the last month defending the Citadel and this city from traitors.”

“Commendable,” Konstans acknowledged. “You will be glad to know that with me marches six thousand men to that end.”

“Is that so,” Richard now called out. “Last I heard, the soldiers of Vale had ends of their own in mind.”

“These soldiers march under the banners of House Hardling,” Konstans clarified. “With me is also Lord Hardmar.” Behind him, the young nobleman in question had his horse move forward a little as he inclined his head in greeting. “He has granted me leave to speak on his behalf and submit these forces to the leadership of the Order that it may bring a swift end to this uprising.”

This declaration caused the men atop the gatehouse to exchange looks. “Is this in earnest?” Theobald frowned. “First they attack rather than submit, and now they do so without even being asked?”

“Maybe they came to their senses,” Richard shrugged.

“You said you spoke with his son the last time?” Theodoric considered. “I imagine that father and son differ in their approach to handling this matter. Konstans is no fool, far from it. He must have realised that we all have the same desire. To see Isarn defeated for good.”

“Or this may be a ploy,” Brand spoke, hitherto silent, and the others all turned to look at him. “What better way to get his soldiers into the city than to feign submission? We can defend Middanhal for years from any enemy attacking from without. An enemy attacking from within, however,” the squire said soberly, “that would be a roll of the die.”

“Not all jarls are obsessed with committing treason and seizing the capital,” Theodoric objected, though he sounded less certain.

“No,” Brand acknowledged, “but we should allow for the possibility.” None argued against this.

“My lords,” Konstans called out. “I have six thousand men awaiting your command.”

“The Order is grateful for your assistance,” Theobald replied. “Return to camp, my lord, and we shall send word when we have need of you.” He turned to speak more softly to his companions. “That will buy us some time to discuss this in detail.”

“As you say,” Konstans spoke loudly. “Before we leave, however, I have a request.”

“Speak,” Theobald told him.

“My son is young and has much to learn. I would be honoured if he might remain in the Citadel as your guest during these hostilities,” Konstans spoke.

“What is he playing at,” Richard growled, frowning.

“He is offering his son as a hostage,” Theodoric explained, his expression also puzzled.

“Yes, Theodoric, despite your misgivings about my intelligence, I deduced as much,” Richard said curtly. “But what is all this? Marching his soldiers under Hardling banners, giving his son as a hostage. What is his aim?”

“Regardless,” Theobald interjected, “it is not a gesture we should dismiss.” Turning to look over the parapet, he called out. “It would be our pleasure to entertain your son for the time being,” the captain told Konstans. “Open the gate,” he commanded a nearby soldier, who ran into the gatehouse.

As the imposing steel gates slowly began to swing open, Konstantine rode forward to a position next to Konstans. “Father,” he said quietly but with a voice approaching panic, “what are you doing?”

“Is it hard to understand?” Konstans replied coldly. “Because of you, these men suspect we are traitors. Hence it seems fitting that we alleviate such suspicions by delivering you into their hands.”

“But Father,” Konstantine winced, “what if they kill me? Or punish me? I am your son.”

“And as your father, I promise you this,” the elder nobleman spoke with slow, accentuated words, “whatever happens to you behind those gates, it would be worse for you to remain here, outside with me. Do you understand?” The last three words were pronounced with the utmost emphasis.

“Yes, Father,” his son swallowed. Konstantine used his spurs on his horse and rode forward through the gates before they closed behind him with a loud clash.

~~~~

In the scriptorium of the library tower, Egil leaned back a little as he finished telling his story. Quill was sitting by his side, jotting down notes as Egil spoke.

“That was quite a tale,” Quill nodded impressed. “Was this everything?”

“Yes,” Egil claimed, his eyes looking elsewhere. “What will you do with it?”

“First I will write down a proper record from this,” the scribe explained, gesturing towards his notes. “Normally, I would have sent it to Tothmor, waiting for Godfrey. But with this war that seems doubtful. I suppose I will simply keep it here for now.”

“Why?” Egil asked and quickly elaborated. “Why are you sending this to Godfrey? Why does he need to know about murders and princes and clans and war?”

“If he wants you to know, he will tell you,” Quill declared. “It is not for me to speak about his affairs.”

“Don’t I deserve to know?” Egil complained. “I risked my life for this. Because of him.”

“Egil,” Quill said with a firm voice, “you undertook this journey because I asked you to. Why would you do as I ask of you?”

“Well, you’re my master,” Egil mumbled.

“Why am I your master?” Quill asked.

“You chose me,” Egil said with a small shrug. “You made me your apprentice.”

“For this, you owe me your loyalty. Is that not true?” Quill asked sternly.

“It is,” Egil admitted.

“That is why you did this,” Quill pointed out.

“But why did Godfrey tell you to ask me? What do you owe him?” Egil questioned.

“You might say that he did for me what I did for you,” Quill said softly. “My debt to him is as great as yours to me.”

“But he is what, twenty years younger than you, master,” Egil frowned. “How is such a thing possible?”

“With Godfrey,” Quill smiled wryly, “never assume. Now,” he continued in a louder voice, “I think a small celebration of your return is in order.” He stood up and walked into an adjacent room, returning with a pouch. Pouring out some of its content, he placed several silver marks in Egil’s hands. “Go to the market and get as many peaches as that will buy.”

“Are there still peaches?” Egil asked. “The merchants won’t have been able to bring any goods to market for a long while now.”

“If not peaches, then try plumes. Or get oat cakes,” Quill smiled. “The world will have fallen apart before these drakonians would accept a shortage of oat cakes. Buy whatever you please.” Egil nodded with a grin and closed his fist around the coins before he left the scriptorium.

~~~~

Despite sieges and civil war, the Temple square was still host to the market of Middanhal. There had been some disruptions during the struggles for the city between the Order and Isarn, though, which had also caused its share of destruction. Furthermore, most trade came to Middanhal along the Mihtea through Vale lands; naturally, this had been blocked while Isarn ruled the city. There was thus a shortage of many things, but enough remained for the peddlers and traders to hawk their goods from morning bell to the first evening ring.

The marketplace was split into two parts on either side of the Arnsweg; this left the road open for the many people travelling to the Temple or beyond. There was a constant stream of people crossing from one part to the other, though they had to do so with care; members of the nobility would often drive in carriages or ride on horseback through the square with speed.

Egil watched carefully at the edge of the Arnsweg. From the south, he saw several riders approach; a rare sight, considering nearly all horses in the city had been taken by Athelstan’s army before it marched south or the Order knights before that when they set out for Hæthiod. Staring at them, Egil could see that several of them wore Order surcoats, marking them as knights and men of rank.

When they were gone, Egil crossed the road and entered a section of the market dealing in fruit and vegetables; herbs and spices were nearby with a strong scent that reached him even among the apples and pears. Such was common fare and easy to obtain, and Egil continued further in. Eventually he reached a stall manned by a man with same skin and hair as Quill. “Greetings, young friend,” he spoke in Mearcian speech with a touch of the accent from Alcázar.

Egil gave the stall keeper a nod and polite smile, glancing over what he had for sale. “It’s not that fresh, is it?” he declared as his eyes ran over the different sorts of exotic fruit.

“As fresh as one could hope for in these trying times,” the vendor argued.

“I see,” Egil responded. “How much for the cherries?”

“Three copper a cluster,” came the prompt answer.

Egil gave a hollow laughter. “I’ll give you one.”

“I paid two myself,” the peddler protested.

“Here,” Egil declared, counting out two silver coins. “I’ll give you these two, and you’ll give me ten stems. Those over there,” the apprentice demanded, gesturing to one end of the display. “Not the old ones.”

“A cruel bargain,” the other man argued, but he did not complain further; accepting the silver, he let Egil pick out his cherries.

“Pleasant day to you,” Egil said, bidding the vendor farewell and given the same in return. With one hand keeping tight hold of the cherry stems, he began walking away. Lured by the smell of the many spices nearby, however, he soon turned his direction and approached, taking in the scent.

While walking around idly, his gaze was caught by a short figure in bright colours. “You are Baldric, the old king’s jester,” Egil spoke out loud, gaining Baldric’s attention. “I saw you perform at winter solstice, you were very funny.”

“Yet what riddle is this before Baldric,” the jester asked with his manic smile. “Why do Temple novices witness spectacles for a king?”

“Oh, I am apprenticed to Master Quill,” Egil explained, pointing at himself. “Is that why you’re buying mistletoe? For your performance at solstice?” he asked, gesturing towards the stalk of leaves and berries in Baldric’s hand.

“It is for a performance indeed,” Baldric giggled. “But if I revealed it now, where would be the fun in that?”

“I just ask since winter is months away,” Egil pointed out. “If you make a winter crown out of that now, it’s going to wither. A clever man might wait with buying mistletoe until it was actually winter.”

“Is that so,” Baldric said slowly before his face lit up in another smile. “But if you expect Baldric to act like a clever man, then who is the fool here?” With a howl of laughter, the jester disappeared between the stalls and the people perusing them.

~~~~

After returning from the gate, the Order commanders and the jarl of Theodstan had convened in the council chamber inside the Citadel. Konstantine meanwhile had been given quarters with soldiers standing outside; their purpose was not to protect him but to guard him.

“Well, what are we thinking?” Richard threw out into the room. “What is Konstans aiming at?”

“It might be genuine,” Theobald admitted. “Giving up his son as hostage sends quite a strong signal.”

“Not just his son,” Fionn added, “the jarl’s heir. It does seem honest.”

“It does,” Brand assented. “Nonetheless, we should not be too swift at letting our guard down. I think Captain Theobald was right to deny their troops entry into the city. There is no need to risk it.”

“If you do not intend to let them defend the city,” Theodoric asked with an arched eyebrow, “what use will these forces be to us?”

“Plenty,” Brand declared. “There is a hostile army this side of the city which they might engage.”

“You would order them to attack Athelstan?” Theobald asked surprised.

“I would lead them,” Brand declared. “Sir Richard and I,” he added, looking at the knight.

The latter gave a grin in response. “I have never been known to back down from a fight,” Richard stated.

“Perhaps we should consider this more carefully,” Theobald cautioned.

“We will have to face Athelstan sooner or later, will we not?” Brand challenged the others as they exchanged glances. “We have the numbers, and he is near. If we wait too long, he may withdraw to Ingmond, and we could end up having to force him out through a lengthy siege. Attacking him now is our best option.”

“My lieutenant is right,” Richard said gruffly. “He is out in the open, he is confident.”

“He is confident because he has won all other battles so far,” Theodoric burst out. “Let us not forget that.”

“The jarl is right,” Theobald said in a calm voice. “Perhaps defeating Athelstan through a siege is in fact the best option. It will be long and perhaps costly, yes, but a far lesser risk than meeting him in open battle. Fionn, your valour is indisputable. Do you disagree?”

“I am not one to back away from a fight either,” Fionn said slowly as he scratched the stubbles on his throat, “but Athelstan is one man I am not keen on facing.”

“While we may be content with a prolonged siege rather than facing Athelstan, outlanders overrun Hæthiod. How long before Heohlond smells our indecisiveness and joins Isarn in rebellion?” Brand asked with another challenging look. “How long before the Seven Realms are aflame?”

“A little dramatic,” Theodoric laughed, though there was no mirth in his voice.

“While that danger may exist, it does not change what is possible and what is not. If we cannot defeat Athelstan on the field, we must choose another path,” Theobald insisted. “If only one way eventually leads us to victory, we must choose it regardless of the cost.”

“Can we?” Richard suddenly asked, gazing at Brand. “Can we defeat Athelstan?”

“Yes,” Brand said confidently, meeting Richard’s gaze. “We can.”

“That is reassuring,” Theodoric mumbled grimacing. “That was all you had to say.”

“I am the commander of the Order’s army in Adalrik,” Richard stated. “I will lead that army south and defeat Athelstan. That is my decision.”

Theobald’s teeth bit into his lip, but the captain did not have authority to gainsay Richard’s statement. Theodoric, however, still had words to speak. “It is yours to make,” the jarl began by admitting. “However,” he continued, glancing towards Brand, “as some warned us earlier, we should not leave the city defenceless. In case we cannot trust the jarl Vale or his brother.”

“What do you have in mind?” Richard asked.

“Leave the men of Theodstan behind to garrison the city,” Theodoric suggested. “You will have the veteran Order forces at your disposal as well as the Vale soldiers.”

“Divide our forces?” Fionn burst out. “Surely all will be needed against Athelstan.”

“Will they?” Theodoric asked, and now he was the one to give Brand a challenging stare. “Can you only triumph over Athelstan by my hand?”

Brand’s lips curled upwards ever so slightly. “No,” he replied with barely noticeable hesitation as he met the jarl’s gaze. “The Order can win without the jarl’s support.”

“I question how sensible this is,” Theobald argued.

“Lord Konstans said he had six thousand men, did he not?” Brand asked without awaiting answer. “Our Order forces added to that, we still outnumber Athelstan. Presuming our reports about his army are correct.”

“This sounds dangerously close to a fool’s errand,” the captain of the Citadel protested.

“You heard the man,” Richard nodded towards Brand. “We have the numbers we need.”

“I will ride with you,” Fionn said gruffly. “Let it not be said I stayed behind when needed.”

“But –” Theobald tried to object, looking at the knight that served as his right hand.

“Theobald,” Theodoric said calmly, “it would seem the decision has been made. We must allow the lord commander of the Order army and his lieutenant to carry it out.” Any further words from Theobald died on his lips, and the meeting was adjourned.

~~~~

With the council at an end, Theodoric returned to his chambers, where he found Holwine. Sliding into a chair, the jarl gave a sigh. “If you would,” he asked of Holwine, gesturing to a pitcher of wine. “Thank you,” he told her after taking his first draught of the goblet she filled for him. “I had need of that.”

“Troubled?” she simply asked.

“Concerned,” he clarified. “There is a distinct possibility that within the next few days, Athelstan will gain his next victory and be one step closer to retaking the city. But I convinced them to let my own forces remain in the city,” the jarl exhaled. “If they are willing to ride to their own deaths so easily, I will not keep them. At least I still have my own men to count on.”

“Is victory against Athelstan really so uncertain?” Holwine frowned.

“It is most unlikely, let us put it that way,” Theodoric replied. “Should that young squire win,” the jarl continued, “I am not certain that is preferable. I do not know what Konstans is planning either, and why he appeared today with House Hardling at his side. Every way I look, I see plots, and I fear treason from every direction. Have I gone mad?”

“Only if you are mistaken,” she replied with a coy smile, to which he gave a hollow laugh.

“I am beginning to fear that regardless of how this turns out, we may defeat one tyrant only to crown another,” Theodoric confessed bitterly.

“Perhaps this may improve your mood,” Holwine said and walked over to the table with food and drink. There was another pitcher on the table as companion to the one containing wine; as Holwine picked it up and turned it upside down to empty it, ale did not splash onto her hands, however. Instead, a rolled up piece of parchment fell into her grasp. “I managed to grab it last night, but with the slight interruption of an army on our doorstep, I did not find time to give it to you earlier.” She placed the parchment in Theodoric’s hands; he unfurled it and began reading, his eyes quickly flitting down to look at the signatures and seals. “It seems genuine,” Holwine remarked.

“I do believe it is,” Theodoric nodded. “I have seen and used the seal of the dragonlord many times. Theodwyn was right that this existed, then. It is our luck that Isenhart did not bring it with him back to Isarn when he left the city.”

“What will you use it for?” she asked.

“Only one thing it can be used for,” the jarl said with a shrug. “It convenes the Adalthing outside its ordinary term.”

“Will you use it?” Holwine amended her question with an annoyed look.

“I do not know,” Theodoric admitted. “I will need time to think it all through.” He slowly brought his cup of wine to his lips, emptying it.

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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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