Joining the Play
The next day at noon, Arndis presented herself in the royal wing. She was clad in silk of deep blue colour with magnificent silver jewellery and had intricate hair, moving with the grace of Austre through the Citadel. Many of the kingthanes sent lingering glances as she passed by, reaching the inner chambers.
“Lady Arndis has arrived.” One of the guards introduced her to the prince, who sat alone in the parlour of his rooms.
“Enter,” Hardmar spoke graciously.
She did so with an elegant bow. “My prince,” she greeted him.
“Lady Arndis,” he replied with a charming smile as his eyes took in the sight. “Please, take a seat.” She sat down opposite him. “To what do I owe this unexpected delight?”
“I wish to speak with you concerning these troublesome events that transpire in your realm, my prince.”
“I will always lend an ear to hear the concerns of my loyal subjects,” Hardmar claimed. “Proceed.”
“I fear that the kingdom is in the hands of people seeking only their own gain at the detriment of everyone else, including you, my prince,” Arndis stated.
Hardmar raised an eyebrow in a sceptical expression. “How so?”
“Jarl Vale was chosen lord protector, yet he seems too preoccupied with his newborn son to handle the affairs of the realm as charged. Meanwhile, the dragonlord rules as he sees fit, undermining the authority of law and you, my prince.”
Hardmar gave a quick laugh. “That is a bold claim, Lady Arndis. I will excuse you, as you are a woman with little knowledge of these matters. Yet given your dubious relations, you should be careful casting aspersions on others.”
“Very true, my prince,” Arndis hastily agreed. “I speak only from what I have seen. If you will permit me to tell you, perhaps you can see where I have misunderstood.”
“As you wish. Tell me.” There was a tone of boredom emerging in his voice.
“You know the events of the other day when my brother was arrested,” Arndis quickly began. “I cannot imagine Lord Konstans would make such a decision without consulting you on every detail and obtaining your full permission.”
“Of course,” Hardmar mumbled.
“I was present, my prince, and Lord Konstans did not handle this matter well. If he had informed my brother of the charges, Adalbrand would have complied peacefully. Instead, we were assaulted in our chambers by these brigands masquerading as mercenaries and forced to fight to defend ourselves! I do not wish to paint myself as a frail flower, my prince, but combat between armed men is no place for a lady, and a lady’s chambers are no place for combat.”
“I grant you that Lord Konstans could have handled the matter with more grace,” Hardmar conceded magnanimously. “Yet it was his task to arrest a suspected traitor, my lady, and he did as instructed. Your brother was wrong to resist regardless of the circumstances.”
“Of course, my prince, I see that now. Will you permit another question?”
“Why was this not handled by Order soldiers? The Order, loyal to the king, is the guarantee of peace and law in our land. Yet these mercenaries, loyal only to gold, answer to the lord protector. Or in this case, his brother,” Arndis argued. “It is not the royal treasury that pays the Red Hawks, but Jarl Vale’s coffers.”
“The jarl is lending his aid while the Order rebuilds its strength. I have no intention of letting the Hawks take the place of the Order,” Hardmar declared.
“Of course not, my prince. You are far too wise for that. It is merely that the thought of mercenaries protecting our home is disconcerting. There are rumours that the prison guards accept bribes to let anyone see the prisoners.”
“I cannot believe such,” Hardmar stated forcefully. “They would not dare.”
“They are mercenaries,” Arndis repeated. “As Sigvard’s atheling, any true son or daughter of Adalrik can only be loyal to you, my prince. But who can say with men from foreign realms, fighting for coin?”
Hardmar scratched his cheek. “The Hawks may not be trustworthy, but that is no reason to doubt Jarl Vale or his brother.”
“You are right, as always, my prince,” Arndis assented with a meek expression. “I have trouble understanding the intricacies of rule or the complicated affairs of state. After the frightful experience the other day with these sell-swords, I could not help but begin to fear.”
“You have no cause for that,” Hardmar reassured her. “This is not the court of some savage king.”
“I am greatly relieved to hear such, my prince,” Arndis told him, her voice echoing this sentiment. “Jarl Vale is already the most powerful nobleman in the realm with his titles, riches, and vassals. The thought of his mercenary army added to his own forces gave me pause.” Hardmar was about to speak, but Arndis’ words made him frown in contemplation instead. “It is a relief that you would grant me the courtesy of listening to my silly concerns, my prince.” She sent him a smile to make a man’s kneecaps falter.
“I am happy to,” Hardmar replied, all signs of worry disappearing from his face.
Arndis turned a little to glance at the nearby table, where a chessboard stood with an unfinished game. “I assume you play, my prince?”
“From time to time. That is my brothers’ current game. Young boys, finding it hard to finish even a simple game,” Hardmar said in an overbearing tone.
“I have recently learned the game myself,” Arndis confided in him. “Some might say it is not fitting for a woman, but I confess to a certain thrill. What would you say, my prince?”
“I see no harm,” Hardmar declared.
“Would you do me the great honour of playing a match against me? I can only imagine I would learn so much.”
Hardmar gave a smile as overbearing as his voice. “I would be delighted.” He gestured towards the table and got up, courteously pulling out the chair for her. “Do you know how the pieces are set up?” he asked, taking his own seat opposite her.
“I believe I recall, but please correct me if I should make a mistake,” Arndis implored him.
“I shall,” Hardmar promised.
Half an hour later, Hardmar moved his jarl forward. “Game end,” he declared triumphantly.
“You are too clever at this game for me,” Arndis told him. “Yet I am not cross at all, for I feel I have learned so much.”
“You were a worthy opponent,” Hardmar said in a gracious voice. “With practice, you might present a challenge to me some day.”
“I cannot imagine ever possessing such skill,” Arndis blushed. “You do flatter me, my prince.”
“Not at all,” Hardmar assured her with a smile.
“Unfortunately, none of the ladies at court know the game or can teach me to improve. Perhaps,” she began to say before interrupting herself. “I forget myself.”
“Do continue,” Hardmar encouraged her.
“Could I impose upon my prince to play against me again? I cannot hope to find a better teacher,” Arndis said shyly.
“Why not,” Hardmar agreed cordially. “Come see me tomorrow at the same time.”
Arndis rose and gave a deep, slow bow, sending the prince a radiant smile afterwards. “I can hardly wait, my prince.”
“Storm ladders,” Brand insisted. “They will arrive the fastest, and with the few archers that Alcázar has, the danger is light.”
“You forget the catapults upon the towers,” Athelstan retorted. “A few shots in the right places will decimate your men. Siege towers or even just a shielded battering ram stand better chances of reaching the walls.”
“If I have men on horseback transport the ladders, the catapults will not have time strike fast enough. As you did yourself against Middanhal, I was told.”
“True, I did,” Athelstan agreed. “Yet you still need your infantry to run across the open field before they can scale the walls. Even in staggered formations, you might lose hundreds to the stone throwers.”
“It is a risk, but siege towers or battering rams are even more exposed,” Brand argued, even gesturing with his hands into the solitude of his confinement.
“If the catapults throw stones in their path, the wheels will be stuck.”
Athelstan laughed in the darkness of his cell. “Point taken. Which gate would you move against?”
“I would feint an attack on the Kabir’s Gate, making the Kabir fear for his palace and draw his forces there while actually storming the Purple Gate.”
“Same here,” Athelstan nodded to himself. “Only a fool would assault the Kabir’s Gate. Even if you took the city fortifications, the palace walls behind would keep your forces hemmed in.” He coughed a few times and raised his voice so he could be heard in the other cell. “What about Herbergja? Without any fleet at your disposal,” he added.
“Any other restrictions?”
“None. You have siege engineers, archers, cavalry, any supplies you might need, but no ships.”
Brand chewed on his lower lip. “Can you mine the walls?”
“Ground is too soft. Your tunnels would collapse long before you reach the city defences.”
“That rules out rolling siege engines across such terrain,” Brand mumbled. “Very well, this is what I would do…”
“Lord Konstans desires an audience, my prince.”
“Fine, show him in,” Hardmar directed his thane, who nodded and disappeared. Shortly after, the dragonlord entered. “What is it?” asked the prince curtly.
“I was told some troubling news,” Konstans began to speak.
“Why are news always troubling,” Hardmar questioned sardonically. “Continue,” he gestured at Konstans.
“They say that Arndis, the Arnling sister, visited you for quite some time today.”
“What is it to you?” Hardmar gave a scowl. “And how do you know? Do you spy upon your prince?”
“Never,” Konstans quickly claimed. “It was one of your subjects, concerned about you.”
“A kingthane? Who betrays my confidence?” Hardmar nearly bellowed.
“My prince, I must warn you against being seen with this woman. We have just arrested her brother for treason, yet your association with her may cast his guilt into doubt.”
“You arrested him,” the prince spoke coldly. “Without warning me.”
“You told me to deal with Adalbrand, so I did,” Konstans replied with equal lack of warmth.
“By letting your brigands spill blood inside my castle!” This time, Hardmar did not control his voice. “Nor will you tell me what spies you have planted in my chambers!”
“I would never dare spy upon you, my prince,” Konstans claimed. “I and others are merely worried. This woman is likely a traitor herself and should not be let into your presence.”
“You think she poses a threat to me?” Hardmar asked contemptuously. “You think a woman might strike me down?”
“Of course not, my prince –”
“I suppose I should be concerned,” the prince continued angry. “I cannot trust my own kingthanes or my servants!”
Konstans took a deep breath, holding his tongue at first. “My prince, forgive me for disturbing you. I shall take my leave.”
“See that you do,” Hardmar dismissed him, turning his back demonstratively. Disdain ran across Konstans’ face before the dragonlord turned around and stormed out.
In Eleanor’s chamber, Arndis sat by her vanity mirror. She was removing her jewellery, carefully placing each piece into a box made for that purpose. “I will need to borrow some of yours tomorrow,” she told her hostess.
“But I have nothing as fine as yours,” Eleanor claimed.
“It does not matter,” Arndis replied. “I cannot appear two days in a row wearing the same. Even someone with his poor observational skills would notice that.”
“Is it so important?”
“I must use every advantage I can. My dress, necklace, earrings, hair, everything must be used to blind him into infatuation with me.”
“You are playing with fire,” Eleanor remarked nervously, scratching the burn scars on her cheek.
“The greatest risk was seeking him out without knowing his disposition,” Arndis told her friend while picking out new ornaments and evaluating herself in the mirror. “He might have had me thrown into prison next to Brand.”
“Thank the gods he did not,” Eleanor shivered.
“The hardest part was manoeuvring so that he won the game without making it too easy for him.”
“The chess game?”
“Yes, of course,” Arndis replied impatiently, discarding one necklace in favour of another.
“Why was that necessary?”
“If I had simply let him win, he would have been bored with the game and my company. I needed to present a sufficient challenge to pique his interest without wounding his pride by making him lose,” Arndis explained. “Obviously.”
“I see,” Eleanor simply remarked. “Arndis, you seem burdened. I worry about you.”
Arndis bit her lip, swallowing the first words that came to her. “I know, Eleanor, your concern is appreciated,” she finally spoke. “But all I need from you is that you will lend me this necklace and these earrings. My chambers have been cleaned, so I shall return to them tonight.”
“Already? If you feel unsafe, you are more than welcome –”
“Brand’s men will be staying there as well. Besides, it is not as if one room in this castle is safer than the other.”
“I suppose not.” Eleanor sent her friend an apprehensive look. “Be careful, Arndis. You do not trifle with powerful people. The price to pay is heavy.” She ran her fingers across her scars.
Picking up the pieces she intended to borrow, Arndis gave her an absentminded smile. “Worry not, dear Eleanor. Thank you for this.” She made a gesture to indicate the jewellery in her hands and departed.
The door to Brand’s cell was unlocked, and a tall figure in a red robe entered. “Quill,” the prisoner greeted him, standing up. “I did not expect this visit.”
“I wish I came for better reasons or with happier tidings,” the law keeper said. “The Adalthing convenes in a few days. I have come to inform you of the accusations levelled against you and how your trial at the Adalthing shall proceed.”
“Very well. I have a question to ask first, though.”
Brand gazed at Quill in the darkness. “The letter summoning me to the Adalthing gave me the wrong date. As a consequence, I arrived here early, before the landfrid, and I was immediately arrested. Did you betray me, Quill?”
“I would never!” he exclaimed, sounding aghast. “It would be a crime against the sanctity of my office. It is unthinkable!”
Brand nodded a few times. “I thought as much, but I had to ask.” He sat down on his primitive seat.
“I suppose I cannot blame you, given your circumstances,” Quill admitted.
“What do you have to tell me about the trial?”
“You stand accused of high treason. The specific accusations against you will be laid out by the dragonlord once your trial begins,” Quill began to explain.
“I cannot wait to discover my crime,” Brand commented with a sardonic smile.
“Any evidence and witnesses will be brought before the assembly. Afterwards, you will be given the chance to refute the allegations, dispute the evidence, make a plea for mercy, or whatever you think is best.”
“It will not be begging for mercy, I can tell you that,” Brand declared.
“When both sides have spoken, the Adalthing must decide your guilt, and we will count the voices for or against. As you are the one standing accused, you will not be asked, but you are still considered a member, and you affect the number of voices necessary to reach a majority,” Quill elaborated.
“I doubt Lord Konstans would be careless enough to let that matter,” Brand remarked with another joyless smile. “What are they saying about me, Quill? Do people believe the accusations against me?”
“I think most people are confused and uncertain,” the scribe stated at length. “They are withholding judgement until they see the evidence at the Adalthing.”
“I am curious about that myself,” Brand said almost with a sneer. “I wonder what they have conjured to paint me guilty.”
“I am sorry that I cannot offer more aid.” Quill wringed his hands. “If possible, I would find out what proof they have, but as the law keeper, I am forbidden from interfering.”
Brand looked up from his seated position. “The evidence will not matter. It is a question of whether enough members of the Adalthing agree with Lord Konstans that I am an enemy.”
“It is deplorable to think about,” Quill stated, “that they would see you fall despite your innocence.”
“Not to mention, if they fail to band together and protect me, if they follow the dragonlord blindly, there is nothing to protect them from suffering the same fate later on,” Brand remarked. “That is my only hope. That they fear what power Lord Konstans might gain in the future more than the power he holds right now.”
“I must continue,” Quill told him. “I must inform the others who also stand accused.”
“Wait. What of Sir William? Does he share my fate?”
“He does not. He remains free. In fact, I hear he has been demanding Captain Theobald to intervene and seeking to intercede on your behalf to anyone who might listen.”
Brand gave a half-hearted smile. “He has not had much luck.”
“We will meet again, Brand. Not for the last time, I hope.”