Weeks after winter solstice, Brand went to the temple for Rihimil. Despite his donation, little progress had been made as it was still under the care of a single acolyte. All the rubble had been cleared, but the damage done to the interior remained, there was no bell in the tower, and the altar remained as bare as ever. Although few others came to worship, this did not dissuade Brand, who knelt and prayed by the red-stained marble. As he finished and rose to his feet, another person appeared from deeper inside the temple. “Might I have a word?”
In the dark, it took the lieutenant a moment to recognise the speaker. As he did, he stepped back on instinct, his right hand moving across to grasp his sword hilt.
“My hands are empty,” Godfrey declared, raising them in front of him.
“Yet you always come like a thief in the night,” Brand pointed out.
“I am most comfortable dressed in shadows, it is true,” the traveller admitted, “but I deal only in knowledge. Which has served you well, I might add.”
“Everything you say is tainted by your suspicious actions,” Brand retorted. “An honest man has no need to scurry away.”
“What use am I in chains? If you are to defeat the outlanders, you need the intelligence I bring. Without it, you have no idea of the forces arraigned against you in the Reach.”
“That is what scouts are for,” the lieutenant spoke dryly.
“They can only tell you so much. You need spies to determine the size and location of their armies, the weak points of their city defences, and any vulnerabilities that can be exploited.”
“The outlanders are almost driven from Hæthiod. This campaign will be finished soon,” Brand claimed confidently.
“Will that satisfy you? What of when the outlanders return?”
This made Brand give Godfrey a sharp look. “What do you know?”
“Nothing at this moment, except they will return eventually. If all you do is beat them back, they need only recover their strength to try again. If you want to eradicate this threat,” Godfrey said forcefully, “you must invade, as they invaded you. You must gather knowledge, as they did of you. You must exploit their weakness, as they exploited yours.”
“Adalrik is torn by war, but the outlanders are similarly troubled. This is why some of their troops were withdrawn along with their best commander, why reinforcements have not yet shown. You have an opportunity to strike,” Godfrey urged.
“Or lead my army into a trap beyond the Langstan,” Brand argued.
“All I have told you has been true,” Godfrey countered. “Question your prisoners, learn what truths you can from them. You will find my words confirmed and that the iron grip of the Godking has cracks.”
“The Godking? Who is he?”
“You will meet him in the Reach. Consider my words until we speak again,” Godfrey told the other man, retreating back into the temple. Brand did not pursue but stood in contemplation with his eyes resting upon the wall painting of Rihimil behind the altar, damaged to near unrecognizability by the outlanders.
Fear of spies meant that the outer gate of Tothmor was closed even during the day except for Order soldiers and those with explicit permission from the captain of the army. This changed as a procession approached from the heath. Numerous riders in front with banners, ornamented carriages afterwards, and a great following behind. For the citizens of Tothmor, it was a splendid sight to behold and deeply emotional as well; it was the return of Queen Theodora and her consort to their home and their subjects.
At the front rode several Blades with King Leander and Count Hubert right behind them. Several more Blades were found along around the carriage carrying the sovereign. The window in the door was open, allowing her to look out and her people to look at her. Young and beautiful, she smiled and waved, provoking many outbursts of affection and loyalty from the crowd. If any bore her ill will for having left the city towards the end of the siege, it was not expressed.
Reaching the first circle, the procession halted. On the palace square, the captain and lieutenant of the Order army stood waiting. They gave a bow before the king as he dismounted and another as the queen appeared from her carriage and joined them.
“Welcome home, Your Majesties,” William spoke with a faint smile.
“Thank you for preparing the way,” Theodora replied graciously. “It seems a lifetime ago that we parted ways in Adalrik, yet we find ourselves home far sooner than any could have presumed. You have our gratitude.”
“The praise must go to my first lieutenant as well. It is his mind that is the architect of our victories.”
“The famous Sir Adalbrand,” Theodora declared, prompting the man to incline his head. “All the Realms speak of your accomplishments, in this war and the previous.”
“I merely serve as needed,” Brand replied humbly.
“It is our luck that you finally serve in Hæthiod, then,” Leander scoffed. “As I recall, this army was meant to have arrived in Tothmor in the summer, not winter.”
Everyone looked at the king with expressions ranging from surprise to dismay or, in some cases, confusion. Not all knew that this army had originally been on its way to fight the outlander invasion when Richard and Brand had led it north across the mountains instead, making it absent at the Order’s defeat at the battle of Sikyon.
Brand stiffened. “The rebellion in Adalrik had to be contained, or there would not be an army here or there.”
“Of course, sir knight,” Theodora spoke soothingly. “If you will forgive us. We are weary from our journey,” she added with a glance at her husband.
“Understood, Your Majesty,” William said, retreating a few steps to clear the path towards the palace entrance.
“Where is Troy,” mumbled Leander, gazing through the crowd, as he and his wife moved forward.
Behind them, Hubert was greeted by Baldwin. The former was composed in his demeanour, greeting Baldwin with a courteous nod; the latter could be seen attempting to control his exuberance in response, but eventually he gave in, and a torrent of words was released as the young squire told the old count everything that had passed since they parted.
A feast was prepared to celebrate the return of the queen and king, bringing with them the return of something resembling normalcy to the court of Hæthiod. The queen and her king sat in their seats in the dining hall once more. Count Hubert flanked the king and had the Order commanders by his other side, also allowing him to speak to his admirers, Baldwin and Matthew, who stood behind their respective masters. By the queen’s side sat her mother and her aunt. The seat after that was left empty out of respect of the court seer.
“I cannot imagine choosing a new court seer,” Theodora whispered to Leander with a glance towards the vacant chair.
“Even worse, this flame woman managed to take her own life,” Leander replied viciously. His voice was slightly slurred. “Of all the prisoners taken, we barely have any of worth.” He emptied his cup and gestured to a servant.
“We have a few officers to execute, at least,” the queen considered. “The rest can be sent to the salt mines.”
“I will enjoy my meals more knowing where the salt comes from,” the king smiled.
Conversation halted as Troy entered the hall and walked to its centre. In his hands, he held his instrument and began plucking its strings.
“I did not have the heart to tell him no,” Leander explained apologetically to his wife.
With a clear voice that did not falter, Troy performed On the Field of Blue, not missing a single word. With its story of Erhard defeating the outlanders, every member of the court was elated. They listened as the devious enemy invaded, and in a terrible battle, slew the king of Hæthiod and shed its noblest blood. They followed the news of this disastrous defeat to Erhard, jarl of Ingmond, where the Order forces were gathering in response to the invasion. They cheered as Erhard decided to take action immediately, gathering any available warriors and riding hard to ambush the outlander army, still drunk with victory. They shouted Erhard’s famous line to his men as they faced an enemy with far greater numbers, the jarl telling his men to take courage and to the spear be bold. Frenzy seized the audience when Troy sung of the victory won on the field of blue. As Erhard was offered the kingship of Hæthiod, establishing a new line that now had come to Theodora, the applause would not take an end.
“Is Troy… good?” whispered Leander.
“He must have practised. Not much else to do in camp, I guess,” Theodora smiled.
“We should send him on more campaigns. He may end up being worth his keep,” the king jested, applauding with the rest.
“With Your Majesties’ approval,” Troy called out as the cheering finished, “I have been working on a new ballad, never performed before. While it is not quite finished and still needs further verse, I should wish to perform it on this auspicious night.” The almost stunned royal couple gave their assent, allowing the bard to continue.
“When night has crept into this land,
When fiend and foe come ‘cross the wall,
Then who shall stand with sword in hand,
Then who will answer call?
Dragonheart, come forth!
Your people pray,
Dragonheart, come forth!
Hear what we say,
Dragonheart, come forth!
We’re led astray,
Save us, we pray!"
“Is this another version of that song Troy was always singing?” the king questioned. “That ballad about some village and dragonborn.”
By his side, Theodora frowned. “I do not think this song is about Prince Sigmar.”
“Was he not the Dragonheart? Who is this, then?” asked Leander confused.
The tune chosen by Troy caught the ears of its audience. The third time the chorus was sung, many of the courtiers joined in, and more and more eyes turned towards Brand. If any before this evening had not known about the battle of Polisals and the ekename bestowed upon the young commander, they did so now. As Troy finished to great acclaim, he bowed before the high table. The monarch clapped politely, while her consort seemed to have no response. As for Brand, he gave a barely perceptible nod in recognition. However, hours later when Troy retired to his chamber, he found a small purse of silver waiting for him.
The morning after, the knight Vilmund returned to his chamber. He had been lightly exercising his swordplay, albeit wearing only a leather tunic above his shirt. Once alone, he removed the tunic with stiff movements and a few grunts. Through his shirt, he ran his fingers over the healing wounds upon his back. The fabric was dry, meaning they had not opened up despite his movements.
A servant entered the room. “Pardons, milord,” he quickly spoke. “I came to empty the fireplace. I thought the room would be vacant.”
“Just get it done,” Vilmund spoke brusquely, inspecting his armour hanging upon a rack in the room.
The servant moved to the hearth, but did not begin his work. “You are Sir Vilmund, are you not? I hear you led a fearless charge at Polisals.”
“That I did,” the knight replied absentmindedly.
“Now they are singing songs of the battle already.”
Vilmund’s back stiffened. “Not a very good one. The verse reminded me of Song of Sigvard, and the tune was like any ballad,” he spoke dismissively.
“Many seemed to like it,” the servant claimed, finally bowing down to clean out the fire pit. “Everyone is singing about the Dragonheart today.”
“People are fools,” Vilmund sneered, hanging his sword belt upon the rack.
“You do not share their opinion of Sir Adalbrand, milord?” came a cautious question.
“He is a brat,” the knight spoke with scorn. “Barely old enough to fight, yet given command. It galls me to my very core that the Order is led by such an upstart.”
“No doubt you would be a worthy commander,” the servant ventured to say.
“Without doubt,” Vilmund agreed magnanimously.
“Perhaps it can still be so.” The man crouching by the hearth kept his attention upon his task, but his voice grew cautious. “If Sir Adalbrand is defeated, people will know the truth and seek a worthier leader.”
The knight’s eyes turned narrow. “What are you saying?”
The servant continued his work, but his movements were slow and produced little effort. “If a battle were to be lost under his command… it would be easily done. A message in the right place to reveal the necessary knowledge, for instance.”
“You mean tell the enemy of our movements, our tactics?” Vilmund’s voice was fraught with suspicion.
“I am but a simple servant. What would I know? But if a great knight such as yourself deems it wise…”
The man was still looking inside the fire pit and did not realise what was happening until it was too late. Vilmund’s fists closed around his neck and smashed his head against the wall. “You think I am a filthy traitor?” bellowed the knight, releasing his anger with numerous kicks. “You think I can be spurred to dishonour?” He took a pause to spit before resuming. “You can explain in the dungeons why you advocate treason, you worthless dreg!”
When the guards arrived, summoned by the commotion, the servant was already beaten to a bloody pulp.
More than two months passed after the return of the exiles to Tothmor, with winter reaching its end and a new year its beginning. There was thaw in the air, the frost receding. Winter rains had filled the water storages, and food provisions had arrived from Korndale, spurred by the resuming of salt deliveries from Polisals. The smiths had been busy hammering new arms and armour. As the Raven Days ended and a new year began, the Order army left Tothmor and began its march south.
Its ultimate goal was Lakon, though before that it would meet with the armies of Korndale, sent by King Adelard under the command of Prince Aquila. The combined forces could match the outlanders in Lakon and commence the final liberation of Hæthiod. The king himself along with his trusted companion, the count of Esmarch, and a contingent of Blades, was leaving the queen to participate in this final leg of the campaign.
Beyond that, the Order brought many recruits to fill the gaps in its ranks. There were barely any men left in Tothmor with the age and vitality to bear arms, and the city seemed a domain of the elderly. The reasons why these youths joined the Order were many. Some did it for silver, others for revenge or for justice, many to seek opportunity far away. Among their number was Hugh, the disgraced son of Hubert.