Inghard moved his pawn forward. “King under threat.” Gerhard scratched his neck. His hand hovered over his king piece until he changed his mind and grabbed a knight, letting it kill the offensive pawn. Inghard immediately moved his thane into the same position, removing the knight. “King under threat,” he repeated. Gerhard took a few deep breaths while his hand moved around the board indecisively.
“Need advice?” Hardmar offered with an overbearing voice. He was reading letters from their home at Hardburg, but glanced up to look at his brothers. “I am adept at teaching this game.”
“You lost the last three times we played, so I doubt you can help him,” the youngest remarked while keeping his eyes on the board.
“Shut up, Inghard,” Hardmar said with a sour expression.
“He is right, you are worse than either of us,” Gerhard scoffed. “What gave you the idea you are any good?”
“It is that lady,” Inghard explained. “Arndis of House Arnling. I saw the chess board after you played against her.”
“Then you should know my skill,” Hardmar retorted.
“How long do you plan to entertain her as your visitor?” Gerhard asked. “She is the sister of a traitor and not suitable company for you.”
“It is your move,” Inghard pointed out.
“Do not presume to tell me what is suitable for me,” Hardmar sneered. “I will entertain her as long as I find her pleasing.”
“Did Lord Konstans not warn you?”
“Your only option is to move your king,” Inghard spoke.
“What do you know of our conversations?” Hardmar narrowed his eyes as he stared at his brother and stood up. “You take an unhealthy interest in my affairs, Brother.”
“This affects us all,” Gerhard claimed. “It reflects poorly upon us when you spend your time with the sister of a traitor right before the Adalthing gathers.”
“Never mind. You would have lost in two moves anyway,” Inghard said resigned.
“Have you considered that while Lord Konstans tries to get Adalbrand convicted, your association with that woman makes him seem innocent?” Gerhard questioned him.
“Spare me.” Hardmar’s face became contorted with contempt. “I saw him last night. His guilt is obvious.”
“You saw him?” Inghard asked with sudden interest. “You visited him?”
“Why?” Gerhard added.
“Because I wanted to throw it in his face how his sister now fawns over me,” Hardmar told them with a cruel smile. “He has nothing left, and I wanted him to know that.”
“How did he react?” Inghard wondered.
“He made idle threats.” Hardmar frowned. “Why do you care?”
“He is one of the most famous men in the realm, if not all the realms,” Inghard replied. “I have heard much about him from the King’s Quill upon my visits to the library.”
“All that reading will make your mind dull,” Gerhard cautioned him with a condescending voice.
“The Quill is in league with this turncoat?” Hardmar exclaimed.
“They became friends long ago, I think, when Adalbrand was still a page,” Inghard explained.
“How knowledgeable you are where traitors are concerned,” the crown prince scorned him.
His youngest brother gave a shrug. “He crossed the Weolcans with an army. He defeated Sir Athelstan before even becoming a knight. Who would not find him interesting?”
“Enough!” Hardmar stormed out of the room, slamming doors as he went.
“It is still your move,” Inghard mentioned. Gerhard simply toppled Inghard’s king with a careless motion and left.
In the atrium for the chambers of House Arnling, an armed warrior sat at all times. Sometimes it was Geberic, sometimes Glaukos, and quite often both. At first, they had also insisted on following Arndis anywhere she went in the Citadel, but she had rejected to be watched in such a manner. Instead, the two sentinels resigned themselves to their shared quarters, sharpening their swords and constantly checking the hallway.
Arndis had quickly grown accustomed to their presence and paid them little heed, being occupied with her own affairs. She was mending a rift in a dress with needle and thread when her handmaiden entered her chamber. “Pardon me, mistress,” the servant said. “Someone named Mistress Holwyn wishes to be received.”
Arndis walked out into the atrium and saw Holwyn running a finger down Glaukos’ sword to test its edge. “Holwyn,” she greeted the visitor. “Does Theodwyn wish that I walk with her? She usually does it in the evening.”
“I come for other reasons,” Holwyn told her. “May we speak privately, milady?”
“Of course,” Arndis replied, though uncertainty could be heard in her voice. “Follow me.” She returned to her chamber.
Holwyn stepped inside, closing the door after her. “Forgive me the secrecy, milady, but you never know who is listening.”
“What matter gives cause for such apprehension?”
Holwyn licked her lips. “I am aware that you have been paying visits to our crown prince.”
An annoyed look came across Arndis’ face. “I have no wish to discuss this matter.”
“If you merely do it to secure a benefactor at this court, I will leave you alone,” Holwyn continued with a scrutinising gaze. “If your hope is to save your brother, we need to speak.”
Arndis glanced at the door, but stayed in place. “Continue.”
“The Adalthing will convict him, I am certain of it. My master cannot prevent it, nor can Prince Hardmar, regardless of how much you charm him,” Holwyn stated.
“If that is all you have to offer –”
“On the contrary,” Holwyn quickly spoke. “I suggest we take the matter into our own hands.”
“In what manner?”
“I will explain in detail once the time comes.”
“Are you acting on behalf of the jarl?” Arndis’ face lit up in sudden realisation.
“I am,” Holwyn claimed. “I need to know if you are willing to do what is necessary.”
“Yes, whatever it takes,” Arndis declared forcefully.
“Good. Tell nobody for now. Act as if every word you speak will be overheard by Lord Konstans. There is a good chance it is true,” Holwyn impressed upon her. “We will meet again.”
“Gods go with you,” Arndis replied.
With the Adalthing approaching, Konstans spent every waking moment attending to tasks. He no longer appeared at any meals in the great hall, eating only what his servant brought him. He did not give audience or receive visitors either, except for a few people on a diminutive list. While in the midst of his preparations for the assembly, Eolf entered his study to inform him of such an exception. “Prince Gerhard to see you, milord.”
“Send him in.”
The young prince entered with hasty steps. “My lord, we must speak!”
“Of course. Be seated,” Konstans bade him.
“I just spoke with Hardmar,” Gerhard explained. He remained standing, pacing back and forth instead.
“He completely disregards your advice about the Arnling woman,” the prince exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air. “He seems bent on putting our plans into peril.”
“It saddens me that he will not listen to reason,” Konstans claimed, though his voice was absent any emotion.
“He has only grown more stubborn since he was made heir. He is becoming a danger to us all,” Gerhard spoke anxiously.
“You are wise beyond your years,” the dragonlord told the prince. “It is a cruel trick by fate that you were born the second son of your house.”
“I have often thought so myself,” Gerhard grumbled, making fists as he walked around the study.
“Sometimes, one might wonder if the Adalthing chose the wrong brother.”
Finally, Gerhard stood still. “You think so?”
“It has not been my thought,” Konstans replied evasively. “But I may have come across this sentiment from others.”
“But Hardmar is the eldest,” Gerhard objected.
“Tradition is on his side,” Konstans granted. “Yet the laws of succession do not state that only the eldest son of Sigvard’s line can be considered an atheling.”
“I never thought about that,” the prince admitted. “I did not know.”
“It does not matter now, I suppose,” Konstans mused. “The choice has been made.”
“Not to mention, Hardmar would burn the Citadel to the ground before he let you take his crown,” Gerhard added with awkward laughter.
“We shall speak no more of it,” Konstans declared. “I only thought you should know. My prince.”
“I appreciate that you would tell me,” the youth replied, and he left the study with a thoughtful look in his eyes.
The door opened to Brand’s cell, and the prisoner looked up to see a youth scarcely aged fourteen. “You would think I would have some peace and quiet locked away in this place,” he murmured, narrowing his eyes to ascertain the colours of House Hardling upon his visitor. “Whatever you wish, be swift. I am a busy man, as you can tell.”
“I merely wanted to meet you.” Inghard glanced around the cell. “I am not comfortable in places such as this, but my curiosity got the better of me.”
“If you had given me warning, I could have cleaned the place.”
“No need to trouble yourself on my account,” the prince replied, holding a box under one arm. “Master Quill has spoken about you on several occasions.”
Brand swallowed whatever remark had been on its way past his lips and sat up straight. “You know Quill?”
Inghard nodded, watching a rat scurrying about in the corner. “When I go to library. He said that I remind him of you.”
Brand had not been incarcerated long enough for his strong physique to deteriorate, and his muscles were evident under the ragged remains of his tunic. The knight let his gaze run over the pale youth, whose arms and legs seemed as soft as his hands. “Is that so.”
“Yes,” Inghard confirmed, oblivious to any of Brand’s barbs. “He told me how you would often visit the library as a page.”
“True,” Brand admitted. “My childhood was spent in that tower as much as anywhere else.”
The chained knight sent the young prince an incredulous look. “You wish to discuss my childhood? My reading habits?”
“For better or worse, you are the most famous knight in the realm,” Inghard explained. “As a child, I heard about Theobald, the Blade of the North. Athelstan, the Wolf of Isarn. Or William the Unyielding. Now they tell stories about you. I am curious what man hides behind the legends.”
Brand rested his head against the wall. “Take a look, boy. I am what we all are when the legends are stripped away.”
Inghard frowned. “How so?”
“All men are in the chains of fate. Mine are merely visible.” He let the manacles rattle to emphasise his point.
“Master Anselm of Monteau,” Inghard pointed out with satisfaction.
“Yes. You have read him?”
“No,” Inghard shook his head. “Master Quill quoted that to me once and told me to read his Ruminations.”
“Quill was right. Any prince or ruler should know his principles.”
“I will never be ruler,” Inghard shrugged.
“A month ago, I never thought I would be awaiting execution by my own people,” Brand retorted.
“I will grant you that.”
“If you will not read Master Anselm, take his most important lesson to heart,” Brand impressed upon him. “Sharpen the sword of justice with mercy. Fill your coffers with gold, spend your silver with ease. Be steadfast to your friends, be kind to your enemies, and you shall see the latter become the former. Place your value on coin, loyalty, and wisdom in the reverse order,” Brand quoted from memory, “that you may trust yourself, others, and lastly that, which does not hold life in its hands.”
“I shall remember your words,” Inghard promised. He took the small box from under his arm, revealing its patterned look. “I am told you are an excellent chess player. My brothers cannot provide me with a challenge. Would you be interested?”
Brand eyed the chessboard. “Let us set it up.”
One of the Red Hawks knocked on the door to Valerie’s chamber. Once given entrance, he stuck his head inside the door. “Lady Valerie, there is a Mistress Holwyn seeking to speak with you. She is a servant of Lady Theodwyn.”
“Thank you,” Valerie told him and left her room, walking down to meet Holwyn. “Tell Lady Theodwyn that I appreciate being invited to join her evening walk, but I am rather tired tonight.”
“I come for another reason, milady,” Holwyn told her. “I have a message that I was instructed to speak only in private,” she added while glancing at the Hawks who stood guard.
“Fine,” Valerie acceded, returning to her room and followed by Holwyn. “What is it?”
Holwyn closed the door behind them. “Milady asked my master once whether he would be inclined to spare the Isarn prisoners from execution, is that not so?”
“Not my exact words,” Valerie replied.
“But something to that effect?”
“It seems unlikely the Adalthing can be convinced to show mercy. Yet a path may be found.”
“You speak in riddles,” Valerie complained.
“If you want to save Lord Isenwald, you must be prepared to use deceit. Are you willing to do that?” asked Holwyn.
“How do you mean?”
“Answer me first. Are you willing to risk your father’s wrath for his life?”
Valerie stared at Holwyn. “Yes. Now it is your turn to give me answers.”
“More than that, I have a task to give you,” Holwyn smiled.
Kate was finishing her duties in the library tower when the door opened and two kingthanes stepped through. Behind them came Hardmar, heir to the realms. Kate stood with mouth agape, staring at the prince, who did not notice her. Nor did he seem to spot Egil, who froze while gazing with wide eyes. Instead, Hardmar sought out Quill and approached the scribe. “Master Quill,” he spoke with a charming smile.
The library keeper had been engrossed in law books; seeing the visitor, he quickly rose and gave a deep bow. “My prince, what may I do for you?”
“I have come for your counsel in a legal matter,” Hardmar explained.
Quill glanced at the tomes upon his reading table. “Your arrival is fortuitous. I was just reading about this subject in preparation for tomorrow’s Adalthing. How may I serve?”
“It is a question of the laws of succession,” the prince began to explain. “As I have been told again and again, I may not be crowned until I reach the age of twenty-one.”
“That is true, my prince. It is an ancient custom, related to similar laws regarding the age at which a person may marry or inherit,” Quill informed him.
“A custom, you say, not a law?”
“It was written into law many centuries ago. I believe the purpose was to ensure a child could not be crowned king while controlled by a regent hiding behind the throne. Instead, the office of the lord protector was instated, allowing the Adalthing some control over the process,” Quill elaborated, sharing his knowledge with delight.
“Always the Adalthing seeking to control,” Hardmar remarked. His smile faltered for a moment as he gazed upon the heavy law books, and when it returned, it did not touch his eyes. “Yet we dispense with such laws in times of need. Titles may be inherited although the heir is too young.”
“Only to ensure that the membership of the Adalthing is full, I believe,” Quill added.
“Once again the Adalthing.” Hardmar’s voice acquired an air of condescension briefly. “We also allow those otherwise too young to marry. Lord Konstans had no difficulty arranging that for me.”
“The king and his dragonlord have the right to extend this privilege, though it is rarely used,” Quill assented. “Though not to anyone younger than the age of sixteen, and both parties in any such marriage must still be willing as customary.”
“So these laws are changed as we see fit, as we need,” Hardmar remarked, tapping his fingers on the books on Quill’s table. “Now there is need to make an exception to the law preventing me from receiving my crown.”
“Your pardon, my prince?” Quill questioned.
“You are my law keeper, my counsellor. Procure some document that grants me exception and allows me to be crowned now, not in four years,” Hardmar instructed him.
Regret washed over Quill’s face. “My prince, I apologise, but that is not possible. No such document exists. The laws of the realm do not allow it.”
“You are the law keeper. It is allowed if you say it is,” Hardmar pressed him.
“I have taken a sacred oath to uphold the laws of Adalrik in all my actions. I cannot break this oath for any reason.”
Hardmar’s smile faded. “You are a scribe. Simply take your pen and write the script I need.”
“My prince, I cannot.” Quill’s face grew stern. “This law was instituted by the Adalthing. If you wish it revoked, you must present it to the Adalthing and gain their favour for your purpose.”
“Beg, you mean,” Hardmar corrected him with a sneer. “Plead for them to give me what is rightfully mine.” Around the room, Kate and Egil retreated as far away from the prince as they could without attracting attention. As Quill did not reply, Hardmar turned towards his thanes. “Seize him,” he commanded, nodding at the old scribe.
The kingthanes exchanged glances. “Pardon, my prince?”
“Are you deaf? Seize the old man!” Hardmar roared, turning to point at the object of his ire.
One of the kingthanes swallowed. “He is the King’s Quill, my prince. We cannot.”
Hardmar spun around to stare at his men. “You defy my orders? How dare you!”
“The Quill’s person is sacred, my prince. He may not be harmed,” the warrior explained cautiously. “To assault him is to assault the law of the land.”
“You serve me!” Hardmar bellowed. “Do as I command!”
“We protect you,” the thane corrected. “And should the Quill assault you in any manner, my prince, I will strike him down without hesitation. But as he is not even holding a sharp feather pen nor have made any act of aggression against you, I may not touch him.”
“Traitors, all of you,” Hardmar breathed heavily, glancing at everyone in the room. Finally, he stormed out, and after some hesitation, the kingthanes followed.
“Master Quill,” Kate mumbled with quivering voice.
“You may be calm,” Quill told her and Egil. “Everything is well.”
“What was he going to do?” asked Egil.
“We will never know, thankfully. It is late. To bed with both of you.”
“Yes, Master Quill,” replied his helpers. They all found it hard to sleep that night.