No Greater Honour
The rest of the day following Elis’ execution passed with normalcy; yet to a few, the sun seemed to hasten across the sky, setting and rising again all too swiftly. In his lodgings, Brand could not see or mark the passage of time any other way than when meals were served to him; he only knew that night had passed and day had come when a guard opened his cell and pushed his morning meal to him. The sun had risen on his last day.
Brand picked up the bowl of porridge, stabbing the slush with his wooden spoon. Noise in the hallway made him look up abruptly, fixing his eyes on the door. The sound of the key being turned was heard, and the door swung open. It was not his escort to the scaffold, but his sister. He let the bowl fall to the ground and hurried to stand, catching her in an embrace; his chains allowed him just barely to close his arms around her waist.
“I tried,” she told him, pressing her face against his neck; her voice revealed her to be a short step away from tears. “I tried, everything I could think of. I spent all day yesterday trying to see the prince, the lord protector –”
“Be still, Sister,” Brand told her gently, stroking her hair. “I have no doubt you did.”
“You were supposed to be far away from here,” she stammered.
“Enough, enough,” he chided her with a kind voice. “It is all out of our hands now. Come now, you should be consoling me,” he continued with a sad smile.
She looked up at him. “You are the only family I have. What am I to do without you?”
“What you did all those years while I was away,” he reminded her. “Survive. You have the same strength as I do. That is my only comfort in this hour. I need not fear for you after I am gone.”
She pressed herself against him again. “I cannot bear to hear you say it!”
“Of course you can, Sister. You are the last Arnling and more deserving to be named an atheling of Sigvard than anyone else in this realm.” He pulled back a bit to look at her with a wry expression. “Present company excluded.”
She gave a hiccough that sounded halfway between laughing and crying. “I pity other women who do not have the fortune of being your sister.”
“I pity other men, especially those who would deny you anything. Now live your life free, Arndis, have children, and tell them my story. In this manner, I shall live forever.”
“I shall name my first son Adalbrand. And the next two or three,” she added, prompting the familiar sound choked between laughter and tears from him.
“It is time.” Neither of the siblings had noticed that a guard had appeared in the doorway.
“It cannot be time already!” Arndis exclaimed fiercely. “It is still morning!”
“They want it over with faster. It took too long yesterday,” the guard explained with indifference.
“Farewell, Sister,” Brand told her, embracing her one more time. “Now or in an hour, it will not change anything. Let me leave lest I lose my courage.”
Arndis bit her lip. “Farewell, Brother,” she finally spoke. “I will never forget you.”
“You have to leave now, milady,” the Hawk told her brusquely.
Brand released her from his grasp, and she stepped away. At the door, she turned to look upon him one last time. They each bowed their head towards the other, silence filling the space between them; then she was gone.
The march from the dungeons went swifter than yesterday’s procession. Brand moved at a steady pace, walking tall. The reaction from the crowd upon seeing him was ambivalent. Some shouted disparaging remarks as could be expected, but they were few in number. Some cried out in disbelief or despair; most seemed dumbstruck, unable to understand that the man hailed as hero and champion by every town crier was about to meet the executioner.
By the Temple square, everyone was waiting for his arrival. Princes, jarls, landgraves and margraves, wives, children, thanes and favoured servants, all of them sat on chairs or the benches on the elevated tribune. Arndis arrived as the last, having gone against the advice of her friends to stay away. Glaukos and Geberic flanked her, trying to push their way forward, but the nobility and their retinue saw no reason in yielding space to the sister of a disgraced knight and traitor.
Berimund, his eyes constantly surveying the crowd for trouble, took note and muttered a few commands to some of his men. Swiftly, they ensured room was made for Arndis, allowing her full visibility of the square.
By the prince stood Quill as yesterday, ready to play his part. Egil did not accompany him for this; his master had deemed it unnecessary that the apprentice learned this lesson already.
In the crowd were Matthew, Nicholas, and Quentin. The latter two were armed with bows and Matthew had his sword, but they could not even reach the edge of the throng held back by scores of Hawks. Instead, they were perched upon the stairs of the Temple, giving them an excellent vantage point. With them was Troy; the bard stood ready to witness the final verse in his song of the Dragonheart.
Reaching the open space between the tribune and the scaffold, the Hawks grabbed hold of Brand’s shoulders to make him stop and force him on his knees before the prince. The latter rose from his chair and walked to the edge of the elevated platform, making him visible to most. In his hands, he held a sheathed sword.
“Adalbrand of House Arnling, you are an oath breaker,” Hardmar declared in a loud voice. He pulled the sword from its scabbard; if standing close, it was possible to see that the blade had been partly filed through. The prince took hold of the sword in each end with gloved hands and broke the blade against his knee. Raising the pieces into the air, he threw them onto the ground in front of Brand. “Thus, your honour is broken, and I pronounce you a knave for all to know.” The prince returned to his seat. “Proceed,” he commanded.
The Hawks pulled Brand up to stand on his feet and pushed him towards the scaffold. With a sneer, Brand jerked his shoulders away from his guards, walking on his own up the stairs. Once there, he turned to face the tribune again.
Quill stepped forward. “Adalbrand of House Arnling, you have been condemned to death, and the raven calls for you.” His voice was hoarse. “You may speak your final words and hope the eagle shall hear.”
Brand gazed upon the gathering of nobles, who had come to witness his death. “Last I came to this city, it was to save you all from a tyrant. You chose another to be your master, and whatever fate befalls you, it is well deserved. Now witness how the last atheling of Sigvard meets his fate.”
With those words, he willingly turned and knelt by the block. The executioner hefted his sharp axe, waiting for the signal.
Every conceivable expression was found among the many faces of the spectators. The prince showed eagerness. The lord protector was uneasy, the dragonlord determined. Tears flowed freely from Arndis. Theodoric looked away, whereas Ingmond stared intensely. Yet the strongest reaction to this scenery came from Berimund, captain of the kingthanes. He balled his hands into fists, his eyes darting from the prince to the prisoner. “No,” he muttered. “No.” As Brand placed his head upon the blood-soaked stone, the bear-like man leapt down from the tribune and charged the scaffold.
The morbid tranquillity of the square was shattered. Shouts arose from every direction, contributing to the chaos that now ensued. Brand rose to his feet to see what was happening. The executioner yelled for the soldiers to grab the prisoner, but both were struck by the confusion of the moment. As they noticed Berimund, they attempted to block his path and draw their swords in defence; they had as much luck as they would have withstanding the onslaught of a raging bull.
Knocking the Hawks off their feet, Berimund grabbed the executioner and tossed him over the side of the scaffold. “Follow me,” he told Brand, releasing his battle-axe from the leather straps on his back.
The kingthane jumped down from the platform. Troubled by the chains on his wrists, Brand followed suit with less grace. Berimund was already running towards the edge of the crowd where the Hawks were keeping the line back and maintaining order. They were suddenly caught between the constant push and pull of the mob on one side and a nearly seven foot tall warrior furiously charging them.
Using his axe as a blunt instrument, Berimund struck down several Hawks. “Run!” he shouted at Brand, who wasted no time passing through the gap in the line and disappearing into the crowd.
As yesterday, most inhabitants at the Citadel were in the city for the execution, including the Hawks. Two remained as usual in the dungeons, keeping watch of the remaining prisoners. They sat casually around the table in the guardroom, helmets on the table next to cards and cups of ale. Engaged in idle talk, neither guard took much notice when a third Hawk walked down the stairs, holding a uniform; only when they noticed that behind came Gerhard, prince of the realm, did they immediately stand to attention.
“Be at ease, boys,” the third Hawk told them, throwing the uniform on the table. “The prince wants to speak to Isenwald. Someone lock it open.”
“At once,” one of the guards acquiesced, fetching the keys. He unlocked the corridor first and stepped inside to unlock the cell as well. Gerhard and his escort followed after.
Moments later, the third Hawk returned to the guardroom. “Come take a look at this,” he said to the remaining guard, motioning towards the corridor.
“What’s going on?” The last guard moved towards the third Hawk; passing by, he was struck in the back of the head by a sap. Removing his helmet, the other Hawk wiped the sweat from his brow and revealed himself to be Jerome.
“I just didn’t want to drag you that far,” he admitted to the unconscious man and bowed down to grab him by the arms. He pulled him into the hallway and further into Isenwald’s cell, who was having his chains unlocked by Gerhard.
“What – is going – on?” Isenwald asked perplexed.
Jerome dumped the second guard next to the first inside the cell. “What does it look like?”
Gerhard finally managed to get the chains open. “This is a rescue. I will take you to your father. You may thank me later.”
“Much later,” Jerome stressed. “Time is not on our side.”
“What – of my uncle and brother?” asked Isenwald.
“There is no time,” Jerome urged. “We need to move now!”
“I am not going anywhere,” Isenwald declared with a slow, but steady voice, “unless they are coming too.”
Gerhard’s eyes darted between the two other men. “This was not part of the plan,” he mumbled.
“Would you rather die in here?” Jerome practically yelled at him.
“Yes,” Isenwald declared with defiance.
“How about I knock you down, same as them,” Jerome threatened with a gesture at the unconscious Hawks. “I’ll throw you on a cart and be done with it!”
“When we reach my father, I will tell him you left his son and brother behind to die,” Isenwald countered.
“What should we do?” the prince asked confused, staring at Jerome.
“Hel take me,” the Hawk swore. “Too late to back out now. Fine! Strip these men of their surcoats. We need two more disguises,” he instructed the others and hurried away with the keys. Standing in the guardroom, he stared at the many doors leading down the other corridors. With a vulgar curse, he chose one door, unlocked it, and walked past each cell asking the prisoners for their names.
“You do not know?” Ulfrik, once captain of Jarl Isarn’s thanes, jeered at him.
“You can stay and rot,” Jerome spat, continuing to the next. “Who are you?”
“Ernulf, thane to Jarl Isenhart of Isarn.”
“I don’t need the full story. You?”
“Eumund of Isarn. What is it to you?”
“It’s your lucky day,” Jerome informed him, unlocking the door quickly. “You’re going home.”
Eumund frowned in disbelief. “What is this?”
“You’d think people would be more grateful to be rescued from certain death,” the Hawk muttered, opening his chains. “Go to the guardroom and put on the uniform on the table. Hurry!”
While Eumund did as instructed, Jerome continued his search down the other corridors. This time, he did not call any names but simply cast a quick glance at the prisoner inside.
After two false searches, he came upon his prey at least. “Athelstan of Isarn, here you are.” Jerome did as before, freeing the chained man within moments.
Athelstan stretched his arms. “I am being freed?”
“Finally, someone who understands. Follow me,” Jerome commanded. They returned to the guardroom and found Gerhard, Isenwald, and Eumund there, the latter two wearing Hawk surcoats. Isenwald threw the third one to his uncle, who put it on swiftly. “Get those helmets on,” Jerome told them. “If I know Athelstan’s face, so will everyone else in this castle.”
The men of Isarn quickly complied. “What about our thanes?” asked Athelstan. “Should we not rescue them as well?”
“Bloody Hel, no!” Jerome yelled, locking the various corridor doors. “We are leaving now!”
“I agree,” Isenwald declared with a cold voice. “You – do not know what they – did, but Father’s thanes – deserve to remain here.” His brother and uncle stared in surprise at Isenwald, but neither objected.
“Lead the way,” Athelstan told Jerome.
Four Hawks and one prince now made their way through the Citadel with speed. Courtside, they barely encountered any. Once they reached the Order side of the fortress, traffic increased; apart from the occasional Order soldiers, there were also scribes, servants, and others employed in its service, conducting their duties as any other day. If any of them wondered at Gerhard’s presence or why he was being escorted by four Hawks, only three of whom had helmets, none saw it fit to ask. The small group made it to the northern courtyard without difficulty.
Its southern counterpart and the Arnsweg beyond was filled with people to watch Brand’s last march, blocking any attempt to swiftly traverse the city by that route. In comparison, the Order courtyard to the north was relatively empty. Unusually, a carriage bearing the insignia of House Hardling stood with a full span of horses, yet no driver. This raised a few eyebrows from those passing by, as the carriages of the nobility were generally restricted to the southern side. Yet as before, none questioned the actions of a prince.
“Everyone inside,” Jerome commanded. “And for gods’ sake, keep those helmets on and faces hidden!”
The other four did as told, entering the carriage with speed. Jerome climbed onto the driver’s seat, grabbing hold of the reins and setting the horses into motion.
The path from the Order courtyard to the northern gate was short, allowing for the Citadel to quickly reinforce the walls. Soon, the carriage approached Woolgate. Inside, three Hawks and one prince sat; various tells betrayed their anxiety. Athelstan’s leg was restless, Eumund was digging his nails into his skin, and Gerhard sat with open mouth, breathing heavily. Isenwald alone seemed in complete control of himself, appearing calm.
In the end, it did not matter; the Order soldiers manning the gate saw no reason to even hail the carriage or question it in any way. They simply cleared the passage and allowed it to pass through. An hour after Gerhard and Jerome had appeared in the dungeons, they had escaped from Middanhal.
While the carriage was making speed towards Silfrisarn in the north, Berimund was fighting on the Temple square. The Hawks had attempted to follow Brand into the crowd, but they had lost sight of him immediately, and searching the mass of people was impossible; the situation had developed into complete chaos. The only thing left for the Hawks to achieve was defeating the captain of the kingthanes.
None of the Hawks had his prowess in battle, but they were numerous, and Berimund used only the blunt end of his axe shaft or the flat side of the head. When he struck someone down, they got up again, making it inevitable that he would lose; his only gain was buying time.
Finally, one of the Hawks pierced Berimund’s foot with his spear, and the thane lost his balance with a howl. At once, the Hawks swarmed over him, knocking him to the ground and taking hold of his weapon. He attempted to wrestle free with his great strength, but it was in vain; in the end, he yielded and could resist no more.
The Hawks dragged him to the front of the tribune; unable to stand, Berimund had to be held up. Hardmar rose and approached his thane with rage infused in every step, every gesture, every motion that ran across his face. “You have betrayed me,” he spoke with unhinged fury. “Dogs shall eat your corpse! You will rot in Hel for eternity!”
“As you say, my prince,” Berimund replied, remarkably calm.
“You have broken your oath, you have forsaken your honour, and now you shall die,” Hardmar stated with utter contempt.
“So be it. There is no greater honour for a thane than to die for his lord,” Berimund declared with a strong voice. He found Arndis in the crowd and bowed his head to her.
“Take his head! I want it on a spike!” Hardmar spat enraged.
The Hawks renewed their hold on Berimund and followed the familiar route up the stairs, placing his head on the block. The kingthane gave no resistance; he knelt placidly and did not flinch even when the axe severed his head from his shoulders.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.