Flesh and Spirit
At night, the palace in Plenmont was quiet; only the guards disturbed the silence, making their rounds. In the hour before dawn, the servants began to rise, preparing for the day. Hearths were lit where needed, so the chambers would not be cold when their masters and mistresses woke, which, depending on the person, could take place at any time between dawn and noon.
There was one exception to this. In the chambers he shared with his wife, Leander sat on the edge of their bed although sunrise was hours away. On the table by the bed stood the sleeping draught prepared by the physician; its contents were mostly gone. The queen stirred in her sleep, and Leander turned to look at her face, his own wearing an inscrutable expression. As she acted restless even while in the clutches of sleep, Leander moved out of her reach by standing up.
He walked over to the window, gazing at the city outside. In the dark and despite being built on a flat plain, it looked much like Tothmor did. Rooftops, the streets weaving in between them, and the occasional tower or tall building rising among them. In the distance, the keep with its seven-pointed star banners. The main difference was that people in Plenmont slept peacefully, whereas none could know how the citizens of Tothmor fared. Sinking to the floor and turning to sit with his back against the wall, Leander sat in silence through the remaining hours of the night.
The morning passed with little incident among the residents of the palace, and the servants spent it with idle talk of the new arrival from the north, the lady Isabel. The object of the conversation had remained in her chambers until the noon bell rang. When she finally stepped outside her door, Isabel was dressed with an elegance evoking envy, and the colours of her lips and cheeks indicated recent purchases from a sun peddler. Roots of certain lilies mixed with rose water made her skin pale as befitted a noblewoman, sheltered her whole life from the sun, while beeswax melted with oil and crushed berries gave her lips a red, glistening colour in contrast.
She was headed towards the royal quarters, led by a servant. As the decorations on the walls increased in opulence, the servant’s breathing quickened, until he finally stopped in front of a specific chamber door. After knocking, he opened into the room for Isabel and stepped aside as she confidently strode past both servant and door. Her self-assured stride came to an abrupt halt as she found the chamber occupied by Sigrid, the queen’s mother, and her various attendants.
“Lady Isabel, how good of you to join me,” the elderly woman said with a smile that did not reach the eyes. “Allow us some seclusion,” she told her handmaidens, who dutifully left the room, fluttering past the immobile Isabel. “Please, have a seat,” Sigrid spoke, extending her hand in an inviting gesture to the chair opposite hers.
“Thank you,” Isabel replied in a demure fashion, sitting down. On the table between them were plates with meats and greens as well as bread.
“When I heard you wanted to dine with my son, I profess that I thought it an excellent idea,” Sigrid explained, “and so I had the servants bring you to me. A bit of audacity on my part, but I hope you would not mind my jest.” The old woman spoke in a pleasant tone, but her confident manner did not suggest that she felt she needed Isabel’s forgiveness for the duplicity.
“I do not mind in the slightest,” Isabel told her companion, finally relaxing her features into a smile that mirrored Sigrid’s. “Who could ever complain about having the pleasure of your company, especially when unexpected?”
“Quite right,” Sigrid agreed. “The same may be said for you, as your presence here was also unexpected.”
“There was nothing to tie me to Middanhal anymore,” the Hæthian princess explained. “As my home is occupied by rabble, I decided to waste no further time but immediately join my remaining relatives in Plenmont.”
“Yes, your sister and niece have been here for quite some time now,” Sigrid remarked in a neutral tone.
“Not only them,” Isabel elaborated, regaining some of her confidence. “After all, the king’s grandmother was sister to my grandfather.”
“My son has many blood ties,” Sigrid retorted, stressing the familial term, “though sadly none are left now in Middanhal after your departure. It is a pity what the savages did not only to my nephew, but also his son.”
If the mention of her dead son unsettled Isabel, the sun-peddled wares on her face concealed any such effect. “A terrible truth indeed, which extends to you, my lady. The House of Adal is gone, which begs the question of who should sit on the Dragon Throne.”
Sigrid took a sip from a cup, glancing down. “The Adalthing has elected an atheling of Sigvard, which surely you must also have heard. The question has been resolved.”
“Has it?” Isabel leaned forward. “This atheling seems little more than a pawn in the hands of the true ruler of the realm, Jarl Vale. As King Sighelm’s sister, as someone born into the House of Adal yourself, that must concern you, surely.”
“I am but an old woman,” Sigrid deflected. “Queen mother, but not queen. Such concerns are the privilege of the young and the powerful.”
“A mother’s concern for her son never grows old,” Isabel countered, her voice quiet for the briefest of moments. “Your son is a proven king and with the same blood as this Hardling boy.”
“Descended through his mother, not his father,” Sigrid pointed out.
“Blood is blood,” Isabel argued. “Though a woman, my niece is ruler of Hæthiod.”
“The laws may bend easier on the heath,” Sigrid retorted, “but not in the land of the dragon.”
“You would concede that your son has no claim upon the Dragon Throne, simply because he is descended from Sigvard through a woman and not a man?”
“I will concede that those are the laws of the Adalthing,” Sigrid smiled coldly.
There was a moment of silence. “Thank you for the meal,” Isabel spoke abruptly and rose from her seat. “I feel the need to rest a while. Pardon me.” Sigrid did not rise herself, but simply inclined her head. With a short bow, Isabel left. The plates of food remained on the table, untouched.
It was early in the afternoon when several canopied carts were pulled by old horses into one of the open squares that surrounded the palace. Not in front, but rather to the side where the servants had their goings. Despite the tattered state of the canopies of the carts, the newcomers provoked great excitement among commonborn and nobleborn alike. Due to the inauspicious location of the arrival, none of the nobility would demean themselves to witness the spectacle in person, so they sent their personal attendants instead, whose numbers were added to those of the palace servants. Before long, a crowd was standing outside, ignoring the cold this late in the month of the Moon.
Although worn, the canopies were dyed in bright colours and patterns, and its contents were equally colourful, both people and cargo, though not all; some members of the caravan were clad in ordinary, undyed clothes and quietly began to unload the carts. Most, however, wore garbs as vivid and eye-catching as those of the nobility or rich merchants. One of those clad in this manner, upon seeing the throng of people, jumped to stand upon the driver’s seat of the nearest cart.
“Good people of Plenmont!” he called out with a flourish. “Today, the Seven and Eighth smile upon your shining city. Prepare for tales that plunge into deepest tragedy and soar unto highest comedy. Your magnanimous king sent out the call for artisans of the greatest craft to journey hither to his capital, and the call has been heard. Across mountains and valleys, through field and cities, travelling on Kingsroad or hidden paths in the deep forests, tread hitherto only by beasts of the wild, we have come.”
There was not a sound stirring among the scores of people listening rapt to the speaker, who continued, accentuating his words with expressions and gestures of woe, wonder, and wit. “Many a king or lord, queen or lady have showered us with praise. In Dvaros, after seeing ‘The Dwarf and the Maiden’, the chancellor wept from eyes that had not wept in a decade! In Hareik, upon our performance of ‘The Brothers Swordsmen’, the king offered us a bow of gold if we would stay in the city of the oak! In the playhouses of Fontaine, ‘The Hat of Holgast’ moved the audience to such cries of laughter, it became known to cure the deepest states of melancholy that even the wisest of lay brothers could not heal!”
As the name of each play was mentioned, all eyes in the audience lightened up in anticipation. “Yet for Plenmont, none of these will suffice. A new play of entirely new fashion must be performed, for nothing less will satisfy.” Murmurs began to mingle with the excitement. “Good folk of Plenmont, this winter solstice you shall have art as the realms have never seen before. That is my promise to you, for we are no common troupe. We are the finest actors, the merriest band, the deepest souls, handsome as Rihimil, beauteous as Austre.” He paused, taking a deep breath and exhaling. “We are none other than that illustrious company, known through all the Seven Realms as the Harps of Egnil!”
Wild cheers and loud applause followed this announcement, although it was doubtful that any of the servants gathered had heard the name of the acting troupe before. With another flourishing bow, the speaker leapt down from the cart, allowing one of the workmen to drive it away; while the crowd had been introduced to the company, the carts had meanwhile been emptied. With many more bows, smiles, and gestures, the last remaining actor made his way through the people and entered the palace. The servants stood aimless for a moment until it sank in that there was no further performance to be had, and they hurried back; some to their duties, others to their masters and mistresses to relate everything they had heard.
Not all the nobleborn of the palace had any interest in the arriving actors. Sigrid was once again entertaining a visitor alone in her chambers; it was Aurelius, the seneschal.
“I had to pressure and play coy a little, but she revealed her intentions,” Sigrid stated.
“What are they, my lady?”
“She wants my son to march north, into Adalrik. What she hopes to achieve specifically, I cannot be certain of. If she wants revenge or to be restored to power…” Sigrid’s face became wrinkled in thought.
“If the latter, her best path is through your son,” Aurelius pointed out.
“Obviously,” Sigrid said curtly. “She will no doubt continue her attempts to ingratiate herself with him.”
“I can deny her access, of course,” the seneschal claimed. “But is she necessarily our adversary? Her goal of Adalrik aligns with ours.”
“The question is what the price will be. She will seek to control my son, pushing me out of the way. That is not acceptable,” Sigrid declared with a thin-lipped smile.
“I will keep her from gaining an audience for the time being,” Aurelius promised.
“Let her be seated next to him at evening meals,” Sigrid ordered. “Their conversation will be within my reach. We might as well use her to our advantage, as long as I can control how much influence she gains.”
“As you command.”
Apart from the royal palace, Plenmont had two other impressive buildings. One was the hall of the guilds and the other was the temple of Egnil, the largest in service to him in all the realms. While it was particularly bustling with activity on Nilday, there was generally much commotion every day of the week. It was built in a style that differed it from many others as well. The outer limits of the temple grounds were marked by high columns, supporting engraved slabs of marble that ran atop the entire square.
The open square beyond the columns was empty apart from a limited number of vendors. Each of them sold something of religious importance and had special permission to sell their wares at this location. Some were smiths or craftsmen, selling idols and talismans for protection or health. One sold bulls to be given as sacrifice to the temple, though the cattle was not kept here; instead, the supplicant received a slip of parchment, gave it to a priest, and was taken to their ritual sacrifice. Barrels of beer brewed by the priests of Egnil themselves were also for sale, known to be of the highest quality. Naturally, countless yellow-robed priests could be seen crossing the square, coming and leaving in every direction.
All manner of people mingled at the square of Egnil’s temple, both commonborn and nobleborn, which meant that Leander and his three guards did not stand out. They might have if people knew he was not simply some lord but a king, but since most ordinary folk did not know the emblem of Hæthiod, he was not recognised. Walking at a swift pace across the square, Leander moved towards the actual sanctum of the grounds.
It did not have the splendour of light as the Basilica in Middanhal did, but was dark and too small compared to the number of people inside. In the far end of the hall was a tall statue of a man with a bull’s head, representing Egnil as the god of fertility. Right in front was a round and deep hole, almost like a well, though it was covered by a metal grid to prevent anyone from falling down. The walls were smeared with blood, which in a few places had managed to reach high enough to stain the statue of the god. This was where bulls were sacrificed and their blood used to sanctify the worshippers.
Leander looked around with an irritated glance, until he gave one of his Queen’s Blades a quick command. The guard approached a geolrobe and made enquiries. Whether helpful of nature or intimidated, the priest offered to show the way and led the king and companions out of the sanctum. Instead, he guided them to the buildings placed in the far end of the temple grounds.
They passed by several temple guards wielding fearsome-looking flails, keeping watch by the entrance and at intervals inside. Although the visitors were armed, the guards did not view them with any suspicion, only bored disinterest. The geolrobe took Leander and his Blades through a few corridors before finally showing them through a door.
The room inside was luxurious and reminiscent of the palace chambers, except it contained several idols and various trappings of the faith. It was occupied by an elderly man, dressed in a yellow robe with the patterns of a high priest.
“The king of Hæthiod, Reverend One,” said the geolrobe who had been guiding the way. Leander glanced around the room, his gaze avoiding the high priest whereas the guards took position behind him.
“Thank you, brother,” the leader of the Order of the Bull spoke, dismissing his subordinate. “I am Brother Benedict,” he introduced himself to Leander, inclining his head. “How may I serve?”
The king looked at his guards. “Leave us.” The Blades glanced at the unarmed priest and did as ordered. “I came at the suggestion of the palace physician,” Leander ventured to say, still looking elsewhere than at the priest.
“I understand,” Benedict nodded. “You seek help.”
“He told you?” Leander exclaimed, jerking his head around to finally look at the priest.
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” the priest responded, raising his hands in a disarming gesture. “But Brother Raul has sent patients to us before, who could not be healed by his arts.”
“I do not need help,” Leander muttered. “I am just here to make enquiries.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Benedict agreed in a calming voice. “Will you not take a seat? I am an old man,” he smiled, gesturing towards a chair. Once Leander sat down, he did as well. “Tell me what you wish to enquire about.”
“I have on occasion heard that ill dreams are caused by spirits,” Leander said in a mumbling tone, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall. “Is there truth in this?”
Benedict nodded. “Most assuredly, Your Majesty. Evil beings may choose to torment people in this way, though in my experience, it is most often the restless spirits of the dead.”
“Why are they restless? Why would they haunt the living?”
“Harder to say,” Benedict admitted. “Usually depends on the spirit and the manner of its death.”
“I am having trouble sleeping,” Leander confessed with a hesitant voice. “The physician said it might be a malady of the spirit. Either mine or someone else’s.”
“That is often the case. Some inner conflict troubles the soul, and the gods interfere with our rest to show displeasure. Or,” the priest continued, “for one reason or another, the conflict is with outer spirits plaguing us.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” Leander burst out. “I have done my duty as king over and over!”
“That leaves the second option,” Benedict pointed out. “What are these spirits that trouble you?”
“When I dream, and sometimes even in my waking state,” Leander spoke, his voice fumbling for words, “I see the dead soldiers from Tothmor. Guards, soldiers of the Order, all of them. Sometimes even the scum outlanders,” he added with spite. “Why are they haunting me? I fought on the walls every day, I bled beside them!”
“The dead are not reasonable,” Benedict explained calmly. “They know only that they cannot find rest. They feel the cold of Hel pulling at them, and they are desperate to find peace. If any one of us were to die and not see the eagle that leads us to the Sapphire City, would we not react with similar despair?”
The explanation seemed to mollify Leander a bit, but only briefly. “But why me? I am not even in Tothmor anymore. Why are they not tormenting the outlanders, who did this to them?”
“You are the king,” Benedict retorted. “The people look to you in life and in death. Justified or not, they seek you out that you might bring them peace.”
“But what can I do?” Leander complained. “I am no sibyl or priest. I cannot command the spirits to rest anymore than I can turn day to night.”
“Whatever reason there may be for the disquiet of these lost souls, it must be rectified.”
“I can think of a few reasons that would disturb a soul to such a degree, it would not find peace,” Benedict speculated. “The most obvious one is that they were not buried with the proper rites. A raven feather to banish Hel and the eagle idol to summon the guide to the afterlife, without these things no spirit can be certain of safe conduct.”
“These men died in the defence of Tothmor, correct? As long as the city is held by the outlanders, their deaths must seem in vain. The city must be liberated.”
Leander’s face became distorted with various emotions. “Is that all?”
“Some no doubt left behind wives and children turned into widows and the fatherless. Despair over what will become of one’s family can be powerful force.”
“But what I am to do?” Leander asked, his voice unsteady. “If I could retake Tothmor, I would not be sitting here!”
“True, none of this can be rectified at present. You must look to these things once the Order has defeated the outlanders and you are restored to your kingdom,” Benedict told the king.
“That could take years! Am I to suffer without sleep until then?”
“Not necessarily.” Benedict raised a hand to assuage the king’s concerns. “Until then, protection may be given to Your Majesty to ward off the spirits and allow you rest.”
“What must I do?”
“Go the merchants of the square,” Benedict instructed him, “and buy a raven pendant made from silver. Take it to the sibyls at their temple and have it sanctified. Wear it around your neck on a silver chain at all times, even during baths. The symbol of the Raven Lady, sanctified and further amplified by the silver, will keep the spirits at bay.”
“Thank you,” Leander spoke. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure to serve,” Benedict smiled.
Ahead of the evening meal, there had been much idle speculation as to whether the travelling troupe would perform. All hopes were dashed, however, as the actors were not in sight once the meal began. Their spectacle was to be saved until the solstice feast, and food was served without entertainment.
Conversation flourished in its absence. Isabel had been placed by the king’s left hand side; by his right hand sat his mother, occasionally leading his attention away from the Hæthian princess. The remainder of the exiles from Hæthiod were at the end of the high table, huddled in hushed speech as usual.
“I sought her out earlier today, but she was not in her chambers,” Beatrice told the others, glancing down the table at her sister, Isabel.
“Is she deliberately avoiding us, or simply too busy hatching schemes,” Irene pondered.
“Irene!” Beatrice exclaimed. “That is not in Isabel’s nature.”
“It is in everyone’s nature,” Irene scoffed.
“Regardless of what Aunt Isabel wants,” Theodora interjected, “it is immaterial to us. We have our own goals to reach.”
“Quite right,” her mother assented with a nod, while Irene continued to watch Isabel with a thoughtful expression.
Across the table, Leander was engaged in conversation with Hubert. “Troy has not written in weeks,” the king complained. “What is the cause of this idleness?”
“Your Majesty,” Hubert spoke with unusual patience, “while winter persists, do not expect any news. The Order cannot campaign during these months, nobody can. Frankly, I am surprised that they even maintain a camp rather than having retreated to Inghold for winter quarters.”
“Why not use this cessation of activity against the outlanders?” Leander questioned. “If they are as idle as we, there must be some way to surprise them.”
“The outlanders will have packed themselves tightly in our cities,” the count of Esmarch pointed out grimly. “Each of their garrisons outnumber the Order army in Hæthiod, I would wager.”
“Outnumber the Order,” Leander mumbled. “There is the problem in a nutshell. We are left to fend for ourselves. So much for the Alliance of Adalmearc.”
“Perhaps,” a voice spoke with emphasis on each word, “his majesty forgets the complexity of the situation.”
Leander and Hubert, sitting closest to the centre of the high table, turned towards the speaker. “Prince Aquila,” Leander spoke coldly. “We have never been formally introduced, I believe.”
“Your Majesty,” Flavius replied in greeting, inclining his head. “True, I rarely dine at the palace. I have many concerns keeping me occupied, which could be said for every fighting man in the realm.”
“I have seen little cause for concern during my time in Korndale,” Leander replied, his voice still touched by chill. “Unless you mean whether the cows and corn grow sufficiently fat.”
“Until this year, I believe the concerns of Hæthiod were similar,” Aquila retorted, his voice no friendlier than Leander’s. “We will not be caught unawares, our cities turned trophies for our foes.”
“Once spring arrives, there will be black boots in Korndale. Aware or not, your cities will fall if the outlanders are not stopped,” Leander claimed darkly.
“Then we will stop them,” Flavius declared confidently. “The men of the Dale have kept our watch at the Langstan since it was built. We will not falter like Hæthiod did.”
“You question our worth as warriors?” Hubert exclaimed.
“I merely state the facts,” Flavius retorted coldly.
“You may state them with your blade,” the count demanded. “Prove your prowess and your words!”
“Count Hubert!” Theodora all but yelled as the would-be combatants stared each other down.
“A sparring match,” Irene quickly spoke. “A courteous comparison of your respective skill with the sword.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. “Nothing would please me more,” came the reply from Flavius, relieving some of the tension. “Tomorrow in the hour after dawn, the Order castle. I shall await you there.”
“Not if I arrive first,” Hubert muttered, inclining his head towards the prince of Aquila in acceptance of the terms. Close by, Isabel’s laughter in response to a jest from the king could be heard.