The Dragon Throne was a marvel of artisanship, combining sculpted marble with fashioned gold and laid with sapphires. The seat itself sat atop numerous stairs, giving it an elevated position in the throne room and conveying the majesty of its occupant in comparison with those standing on the floor, looking up to gaze upon the seat of power in Middanhal. Currently, a seventeen-year-old boy sat in that seat, wearing a charming smile while dressed in blue and golden silk.
“You are welcome at our court,” Hardmar spoke to the envoy standing before the throne. “I am pleased that King Brión would affirm the ties between Heohlond and Adalrik.”
The emissary inclined his head with a smile. He was dressed in the colours of Clan Cameron with a heavy, fur-lined cloak and thick woollen clothes. “The rí ruirech acknowledges the bond between the high lands and the low lands. He bows before the ard rí and sends these gifts.” As he spoke, the messenger gave a bow before gesturing to a small chest behind him. Two servants accompanying the envoy unfastened the leather straps and opened the lid, revealing the contents to be dyed fabrics, carved figurines, and pieces of jewellery.
“They say that three things are beyond the price of gold,” Hardmar spoke. “Kin, honour, and peace. I accept these gifts as a token of peace between my loyal subject, King Brión, and I. Tell him he has proven his honour in my eyes, and inform him of my desire that he and I should be as close as kin.”
Many of the courtiers mumbled their approval and appreciation at the eloquence displayed by the young prince, and the highlander envoy seemed satisfied. “My deepest gratitude, great prince, along with that of my king.” Not finished yet, he pulled out a small statuette from a pocket, about the height of a man’s hand from wrist to fingertip. “As for the esteemed lord protector, my king offers his good wishes to your son and had this prepared in anticipation of the joyous occasion. As Idisea saw fit to let your son arrive already, it gives me great pleasure to present you with the king’s gift to Valerius of Vale.”
The envoy gave the statuette to a servant, who approached the throne and placed it in Valerian’s hands with a deep bow. The jarl examined the piece. It was carved in ivory, a near priceless material. The statuette resembled a white bear standing upright, its jaws opened in a roar. “It is exquisite,” Valerian exclaimed, examining the craftsmanship.
The envoy nodded with satisfaction. “It was made by our best craftsmen with runes of protection added underneath.” Valerian flipped the piece over to see the symbols cut into the bottom. “Place it by your son’s bedside, my lord, and the great bear himself shall come from the mountains to safeguard him.”
“Magnificent,” the jarl’s voice boomed. “Convey my deepest thanks to your king.”
With final courtesies towards Hardmar, who graciously bowed his head in return, the envoy retreated along with his servants, leaving behind the chest of gifts.
While waiting for the next person to be given audience, the courtiers murmured among each other in small groups. One of these was centred around Theodwyn. As a jarl’s sister at a royal court without any queen, she ranked among the highest noblewomen. Her handmaidens were viewed with favour by others, other noblewomen sought to be included in conversation with her during meals or audiences such as this, and being invited into Theodwyn’s circle of confidence in her parlour was an emblem of distinction. So far, only Arndis and Eleanor had a safe place by Theodwyn’s side, whether they were out among the court or in the privacy of her quarters; as for the remaining ladies, they were continuously given attention and cast aside in an endless cycle according to Theodwyn’s whims and their ability to inform her of interesting events at court.
“Do you suppose that statuette was made from real elephant bone?” whispered one of the ladies excited. While trying to be discreet, her voice hissed the sibilant sounds like a rusty nail scratching steel.
“Of course it is,” Theodwyn declared dismissively. “King Brión is not foolish enough to risk offence.”
“Those are rich gifts,” Eleanor mentioned. “I did not imagine the highlanders would have such to spare.”
“We are not all savages in the north, Eleanor,” Theodwyn chastised her. Many of the other women exchanged glances; had such an expression of displeasure been aimed at any of them, they would soon after have been banished from Theodwyn’s presence.
“Of course not, my lady,” Eleanor spoke with flushed cheeks. “I meant nothing against Theodstan.”
“Theodstan is in Adalrik and obviously different,” another woman declared. “But just look at the envoy, all dressed in furs and wool! There is an obvious difference between highlanders and drakonians.” Several of the other women present nodded and chirped affirmations of this.
“Arndis may disagree with you in that regard,” Theodwyn said crisply. “After all, her mother was a highlander.”
Several pairs of eyes turned in surprise to look at the blue-clad woman. “She was,” Arndis confirmed. “I have never been to Heohlond, so I cannot speak for the rest of the realm, but my mother was a true lady.”
The same women who had affirmed that highlanders were savages hastily agreed that none could cast aspersions on the late wife of Arngrim. “Indeed, all knew that Lady –” one of them began to say, but she fell silent, unable to complete her sentence.
“Lady Deirdre,” Theodwyn spoke with emphasis on the name, “was poised and dignified every time I saw her at court. I only regret I never knew her better,” she added with a kind look towards Arndis. “I am tired,” she announced with an abrupt shift in her voice. “I shall retire to my chambers. Do not disturb me before the evening meal,” she instructed them.
“Yes, Lady Theodwyn,” they replied in unison, scattering as she left them.
The dragonlord of the realm was not attending audiences, as he could not spare the time for ceremonial gestures. Instead, he was hosting his own meetings in his chamber as usual. While his brother was receiving gifts, Konstans was sitting across the table from Theobald. As captain of the Citadel, he was the only knight in Adalrik with a commanding rank until such time that a lord marshal and knight marshal would be appointed.
“Captain Theobald, I appreciate that you will meet with me.”
“You are the dragonlord. I assume this was important,” Theobald replied in his brusque manner.
“Quite right. I have observed your efforts in rebuilding the city guard,” Konstans began to say, broaching the topic. “It is of course of the utmost importance that Middanhal has a strong garrison with effective patrols.”
“Of course,” Theobald agreed. “Jarl Isarn would never have taken the city if most of my soldiers had not been marched off to war, against my counsel.”
Konstans nodded. “To this end, my brother has retained the services of the remaining Red Hawks here in Middanhal. They can be used to bolster the garrison.”
Theobald’s expression stiffened. “There is no need for such.”
“The outer walls and the gates are thinly manned,” Konstans argued. “Letting the Hawks guard one of the gates seems sensible.”
“The Order mans the fortifications of this city,” Theobald declared firmly. “Every gate, every tower, all will remain under the command of the Order.”
“The Hawks can patrol the streets,” Konstans suggested. “Help keep order in the city.”
“I will not have mercenaries responsible for upholding the law,” the captain retorted with gritted teeth.
“You are a difficult man to offer aid,” the dragonlord replied.
“I did not request your aid.”
“What about inside the Citadel? The kingthanes already guard the royal quarters and the throne room,” Konstans considered. “The Hawks could be assigned similarly to protect the courtside of the castle.”
“I will not have any soldiers on the walls but my own,” Theobald growled, “regardless of location.”
“Of course, but the interior is a different matter, is it not? The Hawks could guard the corridors, the prisoners and so forth. There is no reason Order soldiers must stand guard outside my wing or that of my brother’s family, for instance,” Konstans argued in a cordial tone.
“I suppose that would not matter much,” Theobald admitted hesitantly. “Though it would not make a big difference either. There must be less than a hundred soldiers on duty in those areas you speak of.”
“In part because you cannot spare more,” Konstans pointed out. “This way, we can strengthen the guard, and you will have more men for the rest of the city. In truth, I fear that these mercenaries are getting restless. Having tasks would keep them out of trouble. You would be doing me a favour.”
“True, idle soldiers are the enemy of peace and order,” Theobald agreed. “I will inform the leader of the Hawks and have him put his men to use as you suggest.”
“Excellent,” Konstans smiled gratefully. “I am much obliged, captain.”
“No trouble.” Theobald made a dismissive gesture. “If that is all, I shall return to my duties.”
“Of course, captain. Thank you again.” Theobald rose, turned, and left the dragonlord, who was already buried deep in his next task.
For the time being, the dungeons under the Citadel were still guarded by Order soldiers. Since prisoners were usually sent to the mines or released after paying geld, in rare cases executed, only few cells were needed. A single guardroom manned by two soldiers was enough. The room was circular and like a spider had corridors extending in every direction; each of these contained a number of cells.
A young woman in an expensive, blue dress walked down the steps and entered the guardroom. It was not only her appearance that made her seem out of place; her eyes darted around, taking in sights unusual for a noblewoman, and her nose wrinkled at the unpleasant smell any dungeon possessed.
“Look, milady, I mean no disrespect, but this ain’t a place for gentle folk,” one of the guards began to say, standing up from their dice game to block Arndis’ path.
“I merely need to speak with one of the prisoners. Then I shall trouble you no further,” she told him.
“We can’t just let anybody walk down and enter the cells. That’s against our orders,” the guard informed her, still blocking her path.
“Hold up,” the other man said, scratching his cheek. “That colour. You’re Sir Adalbrand’s sister, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Arndis confirmed. “Are you known to my brother?”
“Not as such. I was part of the original garrison when those Isarn dogs besieged us, both here in the Citadel and later Athelstan’s army outside the walls. Both times, your brother came to our rescue,” the guard explained. “He’s a good man, a true knight. The sort we need.”
Arndis sent him a smile that emphasised her good features. “You are most kind. What is your name, good master?”
“Just Ingmar, good lady.”
“I shall pass your words and your name onto my brother,” she promised.
“That’s real nice of you, milady,” he muttered bashful, scratching the ground with one foot. “Which prisoner do you need to see?”
“Isenwald of Isarn, if it is no trouble to you.”
“No trouble at all. Not like anyone else is down here,” the guard reassured her, even if his compatriot sent him a sceptical look. He fetched the keys from the wall and walked over to one of the corridor doors. “This one, milady.” Unlocking it, Ingmar entered the hallway beyond. It was dark, but light from the guardroom revealed that that the corridor had a blind end and four doors on either side, allowing for eight cells. “Wait,” the guard exclaimed, turning around to quickly fetch a lit candle. “You will need this, milady.”
“Thank you,” Arndis replied politely, accepting the faint light source.
The guard walked down the hallway until he reached the third door on the right, unlocking it. “We’ll keep the doors open, he is chained up anyway. Don’t get too close, though, he might be able to reach you if you step inside the cell,” he warned her.
“I understand,” Arndis told him. She moved to stand just by the door, while Ingmar turned back to the guardroom.
The candle light flickered, struggling to illuminate the dark space. Sitting on a primitive bed with a chain around his ankle was Isenwald, heir to the jarldom of Isarn. His previous slender frame was now gaunt, and his eyes seemed unnaturally large in his hollow face. “Who – is there?” he croaked with his typical hesitation and a voice that had not known much use of late.
“Lady Arndis, my lord,” she presented herself, holding the candle near her face.
“It has been a while since any called me by title,” Isenwald spoke and coughed a faint laughter. “I would – offer you a seat, but – I think you are better served by remaining standing.”
“Thank you nonetheless,” Arndis replied cordially.
“What – do – I – owe the pleasure – of this visit?” He gave a hollow smile. “That was telling – of how long – I have been here. Before my – imprisonment, I would have remembered to avoid such clumsy words.”
“I felt it was only in good order that I paid you a visit,” Arndis replied to his question. “I apologise for the delay it took me to make my appearance.”
“Since – it was not expected, I cannot reproach you for any such – delays.” Isenwald cleared his throat, choosing his next words with care. “I am curious why you felt the need to visit me.”
There was a moment before Arndis answered him. “You recall the last time we met?”
“Yes. I surrendered – our house and have been here since. In some ways, it – is my last memory.”
“You saved lives on that day, Lord Isenwald.” Her voice took on a formal tone. “Not only mine, but also the lives of my friends and many other innocent people. It took me a while to admit it, but you deserve praise for your actions. I do not expect others will see it this way, so I have come to thank you myself.”
Isenwald straightened up a bit, his expression becoming serious. “I appreciate the sentiment, my lady. I shall remember your words.”
“You are welcome,” Arndis replied, inclining her head.
“Perhaps,” Isenwald spoke quickly, just as she was about to turn away; she stopped as she heard him speak, holding the candle in front of her face so that the thin wisp of smoke lay under her nose. “Perhaps you would – do me a kindness – in return,” he hurried to say in slow fashion. “What can you tell me – of my family?”
Arndis stared at him in surprise. “You do not know?”
He shook his head. “I have not been told anything since – I arrived here.”
Sympathy coloured her face. “There was a battle. Your uncle and brother were both captured, and they are prisoners here as well. Your father still controls Isarn, but his allies are under siege.” Isenwald responded to this news with silence. “I am sorry,” she added.
“May – I ask a favour, my lady? Can you tell them – I am here as well, alive and – in good health?” His words were undercut by his own coughing.
“Of course,” Arndis promised him.
“Uncertainty about the fate – of your family leads to terrible speculations,” Isenwald explained, “and we have – only too much time to speculate – in this place.”
“I shall let them know,” she told him. “Farewell, Lord Isenwald.”
“Thank you,” he spoke hoarsely, following the candle in her hands with his eyes as she left the room.
“He has a strong grip,” Valerian exclaimed with pride. “I imagine he will be a warrior if he wants to be. Granted, right now he mostly sleeps, but once he grows up, just wait and see,” he impressed on his brother.
“Undoubtedly,” Konstans replied absent-mindedly.
The jarl did not seem to notice. “Alexandra has proven to be a pillar of strength. She seems delicate, but I would bet on her against Alfbrand himself in a fight!”
They were in the royal quarters occupied by Hardmar, though the prince himself was absent. Standing by a desk, Konstans drummed his fingers impatiently against the wood. “Do you know why the prince called us here?”
“I could not say,” Valerian admitted. “He gave no sign that anything was on his mind when I saw him at the audience.” Konstans exhaled through his nose, creating a snorting sound, though he did not make any reply.
At length, the prince appeared. “My lord protector and my dragonlord,” he smiled.
“My prince,” the brothers replied with differing enthusiasm.
“I called you here because of Adalbrand, who seems bent on being a pest,” Hardmar informed them. “He was supposed to sink into oblivion in Hæthiod, yet I must hear his name shouted from the street and muttered in the corridors. What will you do about it?”
Valerian sent his brother a surprised look. “My prince, I am already taking steps towards this. I have him under increased watch to anticipate his future moves. We will be warned should he become a threat.”
“Watch. Warn.” Hardmar chewed on the words. “That sounds like doing nothing but wait for him to become an actual threat.”
“Hardly,” Konstans spoke in defence. “It is merely prudent to gather intelligence before we act.”
“Yet he wears his victories like a crown already,” the prince claimed. “Why wait with removing him? In fact, I have toyed with the idea of replacing him myself.”
The two men looked at him with alarm and disbelief. “You would travel to Hæthiod? On campaign?” asked Konstans.
“Why do you sound surprised?” asked Hardmar offended. “I am to be king. What task is more kingly than leading an army and winning battles?”
“There is a reason kings have captains,” Valerian pointed out. “One purpose of the Order is precisely to train the commanders needed.”
“Such as Athelstan,” Hardmar sneered. “How soon before Adalbrand becomes another like him?”
“I will not allow Adalbrand to become a problem,” Konstans declared curtly.
“My brother is most reliable when it comes to solve such problems, my prince,” Valerian hastened to add.
“That is why he serves as dragonlord, I take it,” Hardmar remarked. “Tell me, what else has been done in service to the realm?”
“Forgive me, what are you asking?” Konstans frowned.
“You are the dragonlord, you serve the realm. What have you accomplished?” asked Hardmar.
Konstans cleared his throat. “I have convinced the captain to let the prisoners be guarded by Hawks rather than Order soldiers. This way, none who might harbour loyalties to Athelstan, former soldiers of his or the like, will be tempted to let him escape.”
“The captain is not an easy man to convince,” Valerian said impressed. “How did you manage that?”
“I made a few suggestions that I knew were not palatable to him, waiting with my true purpose and making it seem inconsequential. A slight misdirection,” Konstans explained.
“A change of guard.” Hardmar’s voice expressed the opposite of his lord protector’s. “What else?”
“What else? I negotiate with the guilds to ensure trade and coin flows into the city,” Konstans told the prince. “I meet with envoys. I prepare for the Adalthing. Once this rebellion is over and the House of Isarn has been removed, a new house must be raised in their place. We will need the voice of many others in the Adalthing to see our choice carried through.”
“Have you achieved this?” Hardmar asked.
“It is too early to approach Ingmond. He is still in mourning,” the dragonlord elaborated. “Besides, this will not be relevant for a long time. There is time to secure our choice for jarl.”
“Our choice? I have not chosen any to become jarl of Isarn.”
The brothers of Vale exchanged looks. “We were not aware you had a choice in mind, my prince,” Valerian spoke with caution.
“I have none in mind right now, but seeing as he will be one of my four jarls, I obviously want to choose the man,” Hardmar informed them coldly.
“Certainly, my prince,” Konstans spoke with deference. “We will keep this in mind.”
“Of course you will.” Hardmar gave a sudden smile. “That is all I require from you. You are dismissed.”
The brothers muttered their farewells, making awkward gestures of courtesy before leaving the room. “He has grown more demanding,” Valerian mumbled as they walked past kingthanes standing guard in the hallway.
“Not to mention his newfound interest in governance,” Konstans added.
“And warfare. But he is still very young. Taking counsel from others is rarely a virtue of youth,” the jarl pondered.
“He has four years to grow up,” his brother remarked.
“Let us hope he does. We cannot replace him, after all,” Valerian pointed out with a wry smile.
Konstans made no reply to this.
In the dungeons below, Ingmar moved to lock the doors to Isenwald’s cell upon seeing Arndis return to the guardroom. When he came back, he saw that she had remained rather than moving towards the stairs.
“Anything the matter, milady?” he asked.
“I am sorry to impose on your kindness, but I should like to visit two of the other prisoners. I made a promise,” she explained.
The guard looked at his counterpart sitting down. “Captain can’t chew us out any more than he is going to already,” the other soldier remarked in a resigned fashion.
“Which prisoners, milady?” asked Ingmar.
“Athelstan and Eumund of Isarn.”
“All the men of Isarn,” the guard considered. “They are down different corridors. Captain wanted them kept separate,” he explained, unlocking another door, stepping past it and unlocking the cell door beyond.
Arndis followed him, still holding the candle in her hand. Inside sat a young man reminiscent of Isenwald, though he remained more muscular than his brother even after months of imprisonment. “Sir Eumund,” Arndis called out.
“What is it,” he replied tonelessly.
“I am Lady Arndis,” she began to say.
“I recognise your colours,” he interjected.
“Of course.” It took Arndis a moment to resume speaking. “Your brother asked me to inform you that he is being kept here as well, but he remains in good health.” Eumund made no reply to this. “I bid you farewell,” the lady added awkwardly when it became clear she would not receive an answer.
Ingmar looked behind Arndis as she returned to the guardroom. The other soldier, still seated by the table, was staring pointedly at the cup in his hands.
“Athelstan as well, was it?” Ingmar asked, walking over to unlock a third corridor and yet another cell.
“You are most kind,” Arndis told him with a smile that would confound most men.
“It was nothing,” Ingmar mumbled, leaving to let Arndis step inside Athelstan’s cell.
The man once renowned as the greatest commander in the Seven Realms lay on the primitive wooden construction that served as his bed. His eyes were closed, and he looked almost serene; the fact that his cell door had been unlocked did not disturb his reverie. The faint light of the candle was enough to reveal his skin was unnaturally pale, however, and his hair had grown long and wild, but lacked any lustre.
He opened his dark eyes and quickly sat up. “My apologies, my lady. Had I known to expect delicate company, I would have been more courteous.” He stood up entirely and made an awkward bow as his chains allowed.
Arndis seemed confused for a moment before she bowed in return. “Nothing to apologise for. I did not announce my arrival ahead, so you could not have known.”
“I appreciate your visit, regardless.”
“I bring news from your nephew, Isenwald. He asked me to inform you that he is also kept here, but he is in good health.”
Athelstan inclined his head. “That is very kind of you to tell me. I have wondered often about Isenwald’s fate.” He paused briefly. “If I may impose further upon you, would you tell me how the war goes against my brother?”
“The Red Hawks are besieging the castle of Grenwold. There have been no battles or other events of note.”
“The Red Hawks… Jarl Vale has brought in mercenaries. Putting his gold to use,” Athelstan contemplated.
“I do not quite understand why the jarl is besieging Grenwold,” Arndis admitted. “I would have imagined they would seek to capture Silfrisarn.”
Athelstan shook his head. “Marching an army deep into Isarn is too risky. The terrain is mountainous in the southern parts and easily defensible. Not to mention, provision lines would be under threat of constant raids. Taking Grenwold castle allows the supply lines to be defended,” he explained, frowning as he continued, “or they can march on Hrossfeld afterwards. Taking Hrossfeld leaves northern Isarn vulnerable to an invasion that my brother does not have the troops to defend against.”
“I see. Now that you explain it, it sounds so simple.”
Athelstan gave a hollow smile. “It was my pleasure to be of help.” Silence filled the dark confine. “Lady Arndis, if you will forgive me for asking further questions…” When she did not object, he continued. “How is your brother?”
Arndis gave him a surprised look. “Brand is well. He has just sent news that he has retaken Tothmor from the outlanders. All the city is rejoicing.”
Athelstan smiled, this time in a genuine manner. “In winter, no less. I always knew he had a gift for command, but even I did not expect…” He did not finish the sentence but simply continued smiling, seeming lost in memory or thought.
“He had the best teacher,” Arndis pointed out.
Athelstan turned his gaze on her again, his attention snapping back. From a pocket in his ragged clothing, he dug out a small wooden carving, specifically the king piece from a chess game. “I gave him this the first time he beat me. Eventually, I could no longer win against him, no matter how often we played.” He rubbed it between his fingers.
“He taught me how to play the game,” Arndis said. “We did not have much time to play, sadly, but I found it intriguing.”
“It is an excellent challenge for anyone, whether a knight or a lady,” Athelstan declared with a wry look. “You should practise the game. Give Brand a challenge when he returns.”
Arndis smiled. “Good advice, Sir Athelstan. I will take my leave, but I thank you for the pleasant conversation.”
Athelstan gave a bow as deeply as his manacles allowed. “The pleasure was entirely mine, my lady.”
As Quill moved through the corridors of the Citadel, a few heads turned to stare. On most days, the King’s Quill was known to never leave his tower, and he was a rare sight elsewhere in the castle. The scribe greeted those he met and knew, whether courtiers or servants, making his way to the lower levels. With him, he carried parchment and writing tools. He was near the entrance to the dungeon when a noblewoman came from the opposite direction, ascending the staircase. Looking up, Arndis saw Quill standing in the doorway.
“Master Quill,” she exclaimed surprised. “I was not expecting to see you here.”
“My duties are varied,” the scribe smiled, “and one of them calls me to the cells. I confess, I did not expect to see you here either, Lady Arndis.” An anxious expression appeared on her face, and Quill swiftly added, “Nor is it any of my concern.” He stood aside to let her pass. “A pleasant day to you, Lady Arndis.”
“Thank you, Master Quill,” she replied with a hint of relief and hurried past him.
Continuing down the stairs, the law keeper entered the dungeons and found the Order soldiers on guard. They in turn easily recognised the scribe. “Master Quill,” Ingmar spoke in greeting.
“I need to speak with a prisoner.”
“Lots of that going around,” mumbled the other guard.
Ingmar hastened to get the keys while sending his companion a threatening look. “Which prisoner, Master Quill?”
“Elis?” Ingmar questioned.
“You know, southerner. That hallway,” the other guard reminded him while handing Quill a candle. “You’ll need this.”
“Right. This way, Master Quill.” Ingmar led the scribe down one of the corridors, unlocking a cell.
“Who is there?” asked a frail voice. The dim light had trouble illuminating the cell, showing little more than a haggard shape on the bench serving as a bed.
“Master Quill, milord,” replied the law keeper. “I have come to inform you of the charges of treason against you.”
Metal could be heard scraping against wood as chains slid across the bench. “Treason? I have languished for months in this hole! I must be given an audience with the lord protector!”
“Your guilt will be determined by the Adalthing, milord. The lord protector will not hear your plea.”
“But he can have me released! There is no need for a trial against me!” Elis insisted.
“Charges of treason cannot simply be swept aside,” Quill declared. “Only the Adalthing can proclaim you an innocent man, or grant you mercy in case you are found guilty.”
“I am innocent,” Elis protested.
“There is evidence to the contrary, which is why I urge you to admit your guilt and plead for leniency,” Quill told him.
“What evidence,” the nobleman scoffed. “I say that I am innocent! Is my word not enough?”
“There are witnesses that you attempted to surrender the Citadel to Jarl Isarn’s forces. Lady Isabel among them, whose word cannot be doubted. Not to mention, given that you made deals with both Jarl Vale and Jarl Isarn at the Adalthing, promising to support both as lord protector while seeking the office yourself…” Quill swallowed. “Milord, your word is not in good standing among your peers.”
“I may have – entertained the notion of surrendering to the rebels,” Elis admitted. “We were in a desperate situation! I might have saved many lives otherwise lost if the Isarn scum had stormed the castle. How can it be treason simply to consider surrender?”
“Milord, the evidence is heavier than that. You were discovered communicating with the rebels, planning to betray the castle.” Quill licked his lips; the candle in his hand showed him to be ill at ease. “I really must urge you to consider begging for leniency.”
Elis had so far been looking in every direction, staring at shadows, but he now fixed his eyes on Quill. “You would enjoy that, I bet.”
“Milord,” Quill protested.
“I remember. It was you who discovered me. You and that wretched kitchen girl!”
The scribe coughed. “Please, milord, this does not help your situation –”
“You bastard!” Elis lunged forward; the chains on his wrists plunged him back. “You are to blame! You are the guilty party, not me!”
“Milord, please!” Quill moved back, hitting the wall of the cell.
“How dare you show your face to me!” Elis shouted. He strained against his shackles, gritting his teeth and looking like a madman.
Pressed against the wall, Quill moved to the side until he nearly fell backwards through the door opening. Regaining his balance, he hurried away; the screams of the former dragonlord followed him all the way out of the dungeons.
After the departure of the brothers Vale, Hardmar moved from one part of his quarters to another, where his own brothers were to be found. Gerhard was playing with a deck of cards, constantly shuffling them, while Inghard, the youngest, had his nose in a book.
“I am losing faith in Vale,” Hardmar proclaimed. “Both of them.”
“What would give you cause for doubt?” asked Gerhard.
“My lord protector seems only to care about his son,” Hardmar sneered, “while my dragonlord seems incapable of his tasks.”
“That is odd. Lord Konstans strikes me as an intelligent man,” Inghard remarked from his seat, looking up briefly.
“I did not ask your opinion,” his eldest brother said dismissively. “I questioned Konstans about his work, and he had little to show. I do not believe he can effectively handle threats to my rule, nor can his brother.”
“He is the most powerful jarl,” Gerhard pointed out with incredulity, scattering playing cards everywhere on the table by him. “Vale is paying for the Red Hawks currently fighting Jarl Isarn. His armies are fighting for you!”
“As they should,” Hardmar replied with disdain. “He deserves no reward or special title for simply defending the realm. I want a lord protector, a dragonlord that carries out my wish swiftly and obediently. Neither Vale or his brother seem able.”
“Jarl Vale chose to put you on the throne,” Inghard interjected, looking up again from his book. “It will be four years before you are crowned and that choice is irreversible. Until then, you should not whip your only ploughing horse,” he advised.
“Shut up, Inghard,” Hardmar told him coldly. “I will whip whom I please.”
His youngest brother returned to his book.