The Spoils of Peace
In the capital, they were anxiously awaiting news. It had been a week since the army left, and it felt as if the entire city was holding its breath. There were constant glances to the south, wondering if Middanhal would soon be under siege again. Those who had money to spare bought food for their stocks. Salt was near impossible to find and worth its weight in silver.
Inside the Citadel itself, Theodoric sat in one of the rooms of his quarters. He was seated by a table with numerous slips of paper; on each was written a name. Constantly, the jarl shuffled the slips around in a complicated pattern not discernible to the outside observer. As he heard the door to the hallway open, he looked up and prepared to cover his work; he relaxed as he saw it was Holwine. “What did you learn?” he asked of her.
“All of Lord Ingmond’s margraves are in the city. Some in the Citadel, some in their private domiciles.”
“Good,” Theodoric muttered, frowning as he moved some names around. “I expect the support of every southern nobleman, especially those who were prisoners of Isenhart when all this began.”
“What if you do not have their support?” Holwine asked.
“I have four thousand men in the city,” Theodoric shrugged. “I doubt Theobald will oppose me either.”
Holwine moved around to stare at the collection of names on the table. “You are certain this is possible?”
“As long as I can scrape thirty-five noblemen together, it will be legal,” the jarl declared.
“You do not fear the King’s Quill will object?”
“The King’s Quill is in my debt. He will not stand in my way,” Theodoric said with a satisfied smile.
“When does the Adalthing convene?” his servant asked.
“I gave the document to the Quill a week ago, as soon as the Order army had left. He must allow for time to send messengers,” Theodoric explained. “The shortest delay allowed is two weeks, so another seven days.”
“Your plan hinges on the noblemen being frightened enough to lend their voices as you wish,” Holwine spoke slowly. “What if the jarl Vale arrives in time? He will not allow this or that you coerce his vassals.”
“I do not anticipate that he will be allowed to reach the city,” the jarl of Theodstan said with a satisfied smile. “Soon, Athelstan will have defeated the Vale army and begin his siege of Middanhal anew.”
“And while the nobles are frightened of Sir Athelstan beyond their walls, you convene the Adalthing within and have them elect you lord protector,” Holwine spoke softly. “I admit, it is an elegant plan.”
Noises reached them from afar, struggling to pass through the walls and doors of the Citadel. They both turned their head. “Find out what is going on,” Theodoric commanded, and Holwine left without delay.
As the Order army marched triumphantly into Middanhal, the excitement reached a frenzy. Already the jarl Isarn had been defeated and sent scurrying back to Silfrisarn, but now his dreaded brother, the victor of Cairn Donn, had been annihilated on the battlefield. Athelstan’s army was gone, and the jarl’s brother and both his sons were in irons. Every citizen was on the street, praising the army exuberantly.
Brand and Richard’s names were on all lips, and the Order soldiers were shown every courtesy. Behind them marched several companies of the Vale soldiers, although their banners had the colours and insignia of House Hardling; they were also given adoration in full. In this moment, all sorrows were forgotten, the war was all but won, the traitors and rebels defeated. Even Brand, typically near emotionless in his expressions at such times, allowed himself to smile and receive the admirations of the crowd. Today, Middanhal rejoiced.
Theodoric stormed into his chamber after witnessing the procession of the army. His hands grabbed a nearby hat and wringed it as if it were alive and he desired to break its neck; unable to accomplish this, he flung it away. Behind him came Holwine, keeping her distance.
“You seem upset, brother dear,” Theodwyn remarked casually. She had arrived before him and busied herself with sewing.
“Have you not seen? Richard and the upstart Adalbrand returns with victory,” Theodoric exclaimed, disbelief tainting his last words.
“Of course, I watched it with Arndis. But I thought she should greet her brother without me. A private moment between siblings,” she said with a smile. She gave a look towards Holwine, who left the room.
“Do you not understand?” Theodoric stared at her. “I have lost my only advantage. Soon, Valerian will arrive to the Adalthing. He will never accept that I become lord protector. All my plans are foiled.”
“Dear, your plans were crooked to begin with,” Theodwyn told him calmly. “Even if the city came under siege, Konstans would most likely have returned here. He would never have allowed his brother’s margraves to support you.”
“I had options,” Theodoric claimed. “Controlling the city and as the only jarl present at the Adalthing, I would have found a way. But of course, Adalbrand does what none expected and defeats his old master.”
“Do I understand correctly?” Theodwyn said with an edge sliding into her voice, and she turned her gaze to keep it focused on her brother. “Are you complaining that Athelstan and his army were defeated? The very end to which you left Middanhal more than a month ago. Because it sounds to me as if you are lamenting that the rebellion has been defeated.”
“Not like this!” Theodoric yelled.
“How like this?” Theodwyn mimicked his words. “By Richard and young Adalbrand? Without you? Is that what truly bothers you, Brother? That it was not you who accomplished this?”
“Of course not,” Theodoric grimaced. “That is absurd,” he claimed, though his voice grew weaker.
“I think,” his sister said carefully, “you have been so convinced that this all hinged on you, you forgot that others might accomplish something. You have always seen yourself as the saviour in any story and others as the obstacles that plague you. Have it ever occurred to you that you might be the obstacle?” she asked with a pointed look.
“That is absurd,” the jarl reiterated. “Everything I have done has been to protect the realm.”
“As opposed to Richard and Adalbrand?” his sister retorted.
“He is dangerous,” Theodoric claimed. “He could attempt to seize power, legitimise his claim as dragonborn through force.”
“Has he made any move towards this? Like you have when you had the Quill summon the Adalthing to be convened solely that it might elect you ruler,” Theodwyn said.
“That is different,” Theodoric argued, pacing around the room. “I thought it was the only way to save us.”
“Unlike Adalbrand? Whose decisions have led to the liberation of Middanhal and the defeat of not one, but two armies of Isarn,” Theodwyn countered. “Including Athelstan, whom we all feared was invincible. Explain to me exactly, brother dear, what is his offence against the realm? Apart from disagreeing with you, of course.”
“He wants to…” Theodoric began to say. “In the mountains, he…” Closing his mouth, the jarl glanced at his sister, who sat looking at him expectantly. Theodoric parted his lips to attempt another reply but could find no words. He sank down into a chair. “I am the obstacle,” he said in little more than a whisper. “What have I done?”
“That, my dear, I leave in your hands to uncover,” Theodwyn said undisturbed, resuming her needlework.
“The Adalthing meets in a week,” Theodoric said. “I have no idea what will happen. I have lost all control. Set events into motion beyond my reach.”
“Then I suggest you use the remaining week well,” Theodwyn told him with a sharp glance before her eyes returned to needle and thread.
In the evening, there was a knock to the door of the royal library. Slowly, it creaked on its hinges as it was swung open with difficulty. A girl, no more than ten years old, stood inside. Her eyes widened slightly as she saw it was Brand at the door and could discern him to be a nobleman. “Yes, milord?” she asked nervously.
“I am here to see the Quill,” Brand said with an amused smile. He glanced behind the girl into the room and saw many others like her, engaged in reading. “I did not realise I had come to a lore house. My apologies if I disturb,” he spoke, his lips still curled upwards.
“Master Quill is in the scriptorium,” the girl spoke, pronouncing the last word with a little difficulty. She stepped back and pointed in the direction of the chamber.
“Thank you, I know where it is,” Brand said kindly, walking past her. Fully visible to everyone in the room, all the girls stopped reading and watched him with curious eyes as the squire continued forward and knocked on the door of the scriptorium.
“Enter,” a voice said softly. Inside, Brand found Quill and Egil engaged in their work. “Brand,” the lore master smiled. “I have heard I am to congratulate you yet again.”
“My thanks,” Brand replied, inclining his head. “I have come for a specific reason, however.” Quill looked at him expectantly. “My family’s Tome of Names. I became twenty-one only a few days ago, and so it is time.”
“Of course,” Quill exclaimed. “Your birth words. The book is here,” the scribe said, pointing to a desk. “I am all but finished restoring it, should you like to take it with you.”
Brand shook his head. “It is better kept here,” he muttered as he approached it.
“As you wish. There is one thing I should mention, unrelated to this,” Quill hastened to say, which made Brand turn to look at him with a curious glance. “Jarl Theodoric has summoned the Adalthing.”
“How so?” Brand frowned. “He does not have authority to do so.”
“He had a document, signed and sealed,” Quill explained.
“Of course,” Brand smiled sardonically. “By Sir Roderic, I take it. The document that Jarl Isarn intended to use. At least we know what happened to it.”
“Messengers have been sent to those far away,” Quill told him. “However, the jarl insisted I kept it quiet from those already in the city for as long as I could. The law is unfortunately not very clear on this,” the scribe admitted, wringing his hands a bit. “While those living elsewhere must be given two weeks’ warning, there is no such guarantee for those already in the capital. I could not refuse the jarl of Theodstan in this request.”
“I understand,” Brand said quietly. “Thank you for telling me.”
“I will have to inform the rest of the Thing soon,” Quill revealed. “But I wanted to let you know in person.”
“Again, my thanks,” Brand told him. “For now, I will do what I came here for, and then I shall leave you to your work.”
“We will give you some privacy,” Quill promised. “Egil, come along.”
The scribe and his apprentice left the room, leaving Brand alone. He approached the Tome of Names with its hundreds of pages. Carefully, the young man opened it to the first page. He found the name Arn, founder of the house. The once faded letters glowed strong. The entire page was taken up by this person, his titles, and all his deeds. The War of the Dragon, the creation of the Alliance of Adalmearc, the kings of Saelnar bowing to him as the first high king, the building of the Temple and the Arnsweg, founding the Order, and having the first bricks laid for the Langstan.
Brand continued through the pages, moving through eight centuries of history and lineage. Finally, he reached the second-last entry, just above the one concerning his sister. His eyes examined the words, his lips moving in pace as he read them. The name of his father and mother, his forbears, and finally his birth words. They were an ancient northern custom, spoken at the birth of each child by the norn overseeing the event. The words were a gift from the goddess, spoken through her servant, meant to foretell the fortunes of the newborn child and only revealed when he or she came of age. As Brand read them, his lips became quiet until they sloped up into a smile. He let his finger slide over the ink and the names upon the page; his errand done, he closed the book, turned, and left.
After the battle, Konstans and his retinue had returned to Middanhal with the army, allowing himself and Hardmar to take part in the procession of the victors as they marched into the city. He was not staying at the house belonging to his family, however; during Isarn’s occupation, it had been set fire to, and it was not inhabitable. Instead, Konstans had quarters in the Citadel befitting the status of his house.
He was not alone at this particular hour. Apart from the usual servants and thanes, a few other men of rank were with him. One was Hardmar; Konstans was often found in conversation with him. Another was Konstantine; satisfied that House Vale had submitted to the leadership of the Order and was not a threat to the realm, Theobald had released Konstantine from confinement in his chamber and allowed him to re-join his father. The practical result was that Konstantine had moved from confinement in one room in the Citadel to confinement in another; upon their reunion, Konstans’ only reaction to his son was to gesture towards an inner chamber. Ever since, Konstantine had remained inside, too intimidated to ask his father permission to leave.
The door opened to admit Arion into the room. “Milords,” he spoke, bowing his head to Konstans and Hardmar. “I have heard word you should hear.”
“Speak,” Konstans ordered.
“Messengers have been sent to every lord of the Adalthing not in the city,” Arion said pointedly.
“Including my brother?” the nobleman of Vale asked.
“Yes, milord,” Arion nodded.
“So the Quill is convening the Adalthing,” Konstans said contemplatively. “But not at his own word. Whose, I wonder.”
“The jarl of Theodstan was seen visiting him days ago,” Arion told his master.
“Interesting,” Konstans stroked his chin.
“What does this mean? The Adalthing cannot assemble except at solstice,” Hardmar exclaimed.
“It may under extraordinary circumstances if done so by the proper authority,” Konstans replied. “I do not know how Theodstan convinced the Quill to do so, but it is irrelevant. When did the messengers leave?”
“About a week ago, milord,” Arion answered.
“The Adalthing cannot meet until every lord outside the city has been given two weeks to travel hither,” Konstans pondered, “so it will be at least another week.”
“What does it matter,” Hardmar spoke frustrated. “You said we had a year! One procession into the city with my banners will not make much difference.”
Konstans turned his head and gave the youth a cold stare. “It is not the common rabble on the street who will choose the heir. It is the noblemen of the realm. Restrain yourself.”
“But what can be done in a week? What can be won?” Hardmar asked angrily.
“Everything,” Konstans declared confidently. “The others are as pressed for time as we are. I do not know what game Theodstan is playing, but I doubt he anticipated that Ingmond would be freed from captivity. My brother will arrive here once tidings reach him. Both the southern jarls will be present for this Adalthing, whereas I doubt Isarn will dare to show his face.” A predator’s smile crept onto Konstans’ face. “The sanctity of the Adalthing will not protect Isarn once the Thing is dismissed. In fact, I think Theodstan’s hastiness will be his undoing. But I better meet with him. Arion, arrange it,” he told the chamberlain, who bowed and left.
“What will you say to the jarl?” Hardmar wanted to know.
“I do not know yet,” Konstans admitted, “but I will start by reminding him my brother has twice the margraves he has. That should make him willing to negotiate. Rest easy,” he told the young nobleman. “As I have told you before, you will have what was promised by the House of Vale.”
After his visit to the library, Brand returned to his chambers. Inside, he found Arndis sitting in the parlour by a table upon which were laid a selection of pastries; they were still warm, and their scent reached Brand easily. “What is this?” her brother asked with a smile.
“We have much to celebrate,” Arndis replied. “Your victory and that you are now of age, not to mention the swift conclusion of this war. So I sent Jenny to the kitchen.”
“That is a pleasant thought,” Brand told her as he took a seat. “I regret that I may bring unhappy news to cast a shadow over this.”
“What is wrong?” Arndis frowned.
“Quill told me that the Adalthing has been summoned. It will gather soon, in a week,” Brand explained.
“Is this troublesome? The realm is without leadership,” Arndis argued, “which the Adalthing may provide.”
“It may and most likely will,” Brand assented. “A lord protector will be chosen to replace Sir Reynold. I doubt any will argue in favour of keeping him if he is even still alive. We have heard no word from Hæthiod, and they never received the reinforcements promised from Adalrik.”
“So what is the matter?” Arndis asked concerned.
“We freed Jarl Ingmond from being Athelstan’s captive. He knows about the death of his wife and child,” Brand said slowly. “Furthermore, he knows the details. He was most adamant to be told everything, understandably so. He agrees with Jarl Theodstan as to whom he should blame.”
“I suppose we could not expect him to be understanding,” Arndis remarked.
Brand shook his head. “It was my decision to attack Isarn’s house, I even led the attack personally. While the good jarl may not assault a commander of the Order, I have little doubt that he will use his influence to a similar gain.”
“The Adalthing,” Arndis said. “But he is only one jarl. Alone, he can accomplish nothing.”
“No,” Brand agreed. “But another victim of that same skirmish was Lord Jaunis, whose daughter is married to Jarl Vale.”
“Two jarls as enemies,” Arndis swallowed. “I had forgotten the ties of marriage between Jaunis and Vale. What will they do against you at the Adalthing?”
“I doubt I can be sent into exile,” Brand pondered. “I committed no crime when I attacked Isarn’s house...”
“But?” Arndis encouraged him to continue.
“They will not allow me to continue leading this war. I will be removed from command, one way or the other,” Brand predicted.
“Can they do that? You serve at the behest of the Order, not the Adalthing,” Arndis pointed out. “Sir Richard does not seem like he would dismiss you because others demand it.”
“It is murky,” Brand admitted. “A new lord protector may not necessarily dismiss me or Sir Richard as Order commanders. But there are other ways to exert pressure,” he continued. “It will require lengthy sieges to break the North and Jarl Isarn’s strongholds. They can send us north but deny us reinforcements, supplies, and we would never be able to end the war. Our army would be whittled down until we had nothing left, and they would send their own army with their own captain north to finish the war in my place.”
“They would do such a thing?” Arndis frowned. “Keep you from defeating these traitors, all for revenge? Can they not see what a threat Jarl Isarn poses?”
“Revenge or other reasons,” Brand offered. “With my victories, I am becoming a rival. Jarl Theodstan, for instance, I think he now sees me as a greater threat than Jarl Isarn ever was.”
“Strange,” Arndis remarked. “His sister is my close friend, yet such enmity exists between the two of you.”
“We saw things very differently during this campaign,” Brand explained. “At first, he had doubts about my capabilities as a commander. Now he fears I am too capable.”
“But how will they win this war without you?”
“Athelstan is in chains,” Brand considered. “The jarl has lost half his forces. They do not need me to besiege Silfrisarn or starve Jarl Isarn out.”
“So what do we do?” Arndis asked. “We have come too far to let these jarls seize everything from us.”
Brand gave a vague smile. “I am not sure we can do anything. The Adalthing will meet, the southern jarls will decide as they see fit, and I will be pressured into abandoning my post. Probably given a post somewhere such as Heohlond, where they hope I will perish in a pointless skirmish.”
“Surely you do not accept this?” Arndis asked sternly.
“No,” Brand spoke after a moment. “No. It would make all my actions be in vain if nothing is gained.”
Arndis frowned, deep in thought. “The southern jarls will never look on you with friendly eyes. We need Jarl Theodstan on our side.”
Brand laughed quietly. “If you can make that happen, my achievements will pale in comparison.”
“You may have campaigned with the jarl,” Arndis began to speak, “but I spent a month locked in a room with his sister, and she has more influence on his decisions than is apparent. In fact, I imagine Theodwyn has made it seem so on purpose.”
Brand gave his sibling a doubtful look. “You believe the jarl’s sister can make him forget that he has disapproved of my every action these many weeks?”
“Everything I have heard, Jarl Theodstan is a practical man. Is it unreasonable that he should see the benefit of befriending Adalbrand, victor of both Bradon and Cudrican?”
“If befriending me also means making an enemy of both the southern jarls, he would have cause for hesitation,” Brand argued.
“It needs not be overt,” Arndis countered. “Merely an understanding. You are twenty-one years old, Brand. We have many years to work with, and one day you will be a friend worth having. The jarl will see that.”
“Very well,” Brand assented, “let us imagine that Jarl Theodstan sees matters your way. He cannot influence the Adalthing against both the jarls Vale and Ingmond.”
“No,” Arndis frowned, her countenance heavy with thought. “But if we know what their aim is, perhaps we can turn it to our advantage.”
“What do you have in mind?” Brand asked.
“I may have an idea,” his sister said. “Come, it is time you formally introduce me to the jarl of Theodstan.” She rose from her seat as did Brand, and they walked out of the room; outside, the kingthanes took position behind them. Placing her arm under his, Arndis walked with Brand towards Theodoric’s chambers.