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Descent

Middanhal

Fleeing for his life, Brand ran north as the only direction available to him. Pushing his way through the throng of people, he reached the other edge and found himself on the abandoned Arnsweg. It was evident he had to remove himself from the streets and find shelter. Without hesitation and still in chains, Brand steered towards the Temple.

He would end up straight in the arms of the Hawks if he attempted to reach the main entrance, but fortunately for him, the Temple had many smaller entrances dotted around the complex. They could only be opened from the inside, though. Reaching the closest one, Brand hammered his hands against the wood. “Refuge!” he yelled. “Refuge!”

He continued his panicked blows, staring over his shoulder. The Hawks were still combing the crowd, searching scattered in every direction, and none were in sight for now.

At length, the door was opened by a black-robed acolyte. “What’s going on here?”

“Refuge!” Brand exclaimed hoarsely.

The blackrobe widened his eyes, staring at Brand in chains. “Holy –” The acolyte interrupted himself. “Come in!”

Brand hurried inside, and the door was shut behind him. “Thank you, Brother.”

“It’s my duty,” the blackrobe replied, scratching his head. “To be honest, I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know what happens now. You haven’t committed a crime against the gods, have you? I am not supposed to give you sanctuary in that case.”

“You have my word, I have done nothing of the sort,” Brand promised.

“That’s good,” the acolyte replied relieved. “I’ll take you to Brother Eadric. He’ll know what to do.”

The blackrobe turned and began walking deeper into the complex, followed by Brand.

On their path, they came across several other robes of various colours, all of whom stared at Brand’s ragged appearance and chains; even without recognising who he was, his status was obvious. Setting a brisk pace, the acolyte wove in and out of corridors, finally going through a door to enter a large room, arranged like a study.

“Yes?” asked the man sitting by one of the desks at work, keeping his focus on what he was reading. The patterned hem on his black robe marked him as the local high priest of his colour; since the locale happened to be the great Temple at Middanhal, it also marked him as the high priest for the Order of the Dragon in all the Seven Realms and beyond.

“Brother Eadric, this man seeks refuge in the Temple,” the acolyte explained.

The high priest looked up and turned his head to see Brand standing behind the blackrobe in the doorway. “By all that is holy – enter, quickly! Close the door!” Brand hastened to do as instructed. “Were you seen coming here?”

“None saw me enter the Temple, I believe,” the escaped prisoner replied.

“Did anyone see you before you reached my chamber?”

“Some of the priests, yes.”

“We must act quickly,” Eadric considered. “You,” he said directed at the acolyte. “Find the Highfather and inform him he is needed here at once. I will instruct the Templars to close the Temple. Wait here,” he told Brand, and the two priests left in haste.

~~~~

Left alone, Brand noticed a pitcher of ale. Grabbing it with both hands, he drank greedily; his chains and eagerness left as much spilled as imbibed, but he sat the pitcher down with a satisfied sound. Shortly after, Eadric returned. “I see you have quenched your thirst,” the high priest remarked. “The Templars are closing every exit. That should buy us some time before your presence here is revealed.”

“I am grateful,” Brand said earnestly. “I was worried you might hand me over.”

“The thought crossed my mind,” Eadric admitted unsentimentally. “This Temple does not meddle in politics. But the Highfather explicitly tasked me to find some way to save you from the executioner’s block. It seems where I failed, the gods stepped in.”

“He did?” Brand asked with interest. “The Highfather?”

“Yes, but you will have to ask him why. He did not tell me.”

Brand’s eyes grew distant as he digested this knowledge. His attention snapped back as the door opened and an old man in grey robes entered. “Adalbrand, son of Arngrim. I am surprised, which is a sign of how weak my faith is.” The Highfather, leader of all the religious orders of Adalmearc, smiled broadly. “Sit. You must be weary.” While Brand sat down, the old priest turned towards Eadric. “Has the Temple been sealed?”

“It has, so we are safe for now. But eventually they will connect Lord Adalbrand’s disappearance with the closing of the Temple and guess his location. What will we do if they demand he is delivered to them?”

Brand stared back and forth at the two priests. “We will ensure he is long gone before that happens,” Septimus declared. “If need be, he can be hidden at one of our shrines in the city.”

“With respect, Holy One,” Brand spoke carefully, “I am well-known. Sooner or later, I will be discovered and handed over to my enemies. I must flee the city.”

“Getting you around the city is not a difficult task for my blackrobes,” Eadric claimed, “but both gates will be shut and under heavy guard. Same with the outer walls. I cannot guarantee we can get you outside the city without risking discovery.”

“Wait,” Brand asked of them, “wait. Let me think.”

“You have until nightfall,” Eadric remarked, “then we cannot wait any longer.”

“I have an idea,” Brand told them. “I will need a message sent to Captain Theobald at once, and we must hope he is amenable to my plea.”

“It is risky,” Eadric spoke with doubt. “We may be able to put some pressure on the good captain, but if he resists, our involvement is revealed.” He looked at Septimus.

“Do as he asks,” the latter commanded.

“Very well. A spoken message,” Eadric specified. “Nothing in writing.”

“Understood. I need my men to be informed as well,” Brand requested. “I shall require their help once beyond the city if I am to avoid capture.”

Eadric nodded. “We can locate them.”

“I need you to take me to the northern wall. Tonight,” Brand continued.

“That can be done,” Eadric considered. “We will disguise you as a lay brother. Anyone who sees you will assume you are making a nightly visit to a patient.”

“Excellent. I will need at least forty feet of rope,” Brand mentioned, “and a weapon.”

“Your men can bring you one,” the blackrobe told him.

“I may have to fight before that. I need a sword as soon as I leave this Temple,” the former knight declared.

“Any weapon in this place is sanctified to divine service.” Eadric shook his head. “The only swords here are those of the Templars, and only they may wield them.”

“I will find a weapon for you,” the Highfather suddenly declared. The other two men looked at him with surprise. “Prepare your messages and have them sent. Time is of the essence. Have his chains removed after that,” Septimus instructed Eadric. “Afterwards, seek me out in the Hall of Holies,” he finally told Brand. Both the blackrobe and the prisoner nodded in compliance.

~~~~

A while later, Brand appeared in the Hall of Holies without manacles, but wearing a clean linen tunic instead. The sacred space was empty save for Septimus. It gave the usually bustling hall a strange atmosphere; the statues of the gods lining the walls seemed to loom over the interior.

“Come here,” the priest commanded Brand. He was standing in front of the enormous wall painting that was opposite the main entrance, depicting Rihimil in battle with the Dark Serpent. Just below was the altar dedicated to the Alfather, the only one of its kind. It was made from marble stone, a single rock hewn into shape. The sides depicted battles long forgotten, where tall and terrible warriors with eerie eyes fought. The top side was completely smooth, except for the centre, where two hands rose in prayer.

“You must swear upon this altar to never reveal what I am about to tell you,” Septimus demanded of Brand.

The young man opened his eyes in wonder, but extended his hand to grasp its marble counterpart. “I swear by this holy altar never to reveal what you will tell me now.”

Septimus gave a small nod. “Good. Let us fetch your weapon.”

He led Brand out of the Temple hall and into the complex. After another journey through its winding passages, they reached the Highfather’s personal chamber, about as small and sparse as the cell that Brand had occupied until recently. “Bolt the door,” he told Brand, who did so. “Push the bed away,” he instructed next, and with a confused look, Brand complied. The priest took a deep breath and bent down, grabbing the rug to pull it aside. Underneath, a hatch was revealed. As Brand watched with incredulity, Septimus removed his necklace bearing the symbol of his office and used it as a key to unlock the hatch. “Open it.” While Brand pulled the hatch open, the priest deftly lit a candle on the nearby drawer and took out a second, placing it inside his robe. “Follow me.”

A dark and winding staircase revealed itself in the floor. Holding the candle, Septimus descended, followed by his young companion. The steps, hewn into the rock, were indented where they placed their feet, the sign of many centuries of use. Strange symbols were carved into the walls on either side of them. They resembled the figures upon the altar and seemed to tell a story of endless war. The same warriors, taller and thinner than men should be and with empty eyes, wielding swords of strange make.

“What is this place?” Brand breathed. The candle cast long shadows, flickering to illuminate the carvings before thrusting them into shadows again in an endless cycle.

”You will have many questions, and I have no answers. Nothing is known for certain,” Septimus replied.

“What is depicted upon these walls?”

“My best guess, the Great War.”

“That was a thousand years ago,” Brand pointed out.

“Almost eleven hundred,” Septimus corrected him.

“This is older than the Temple,” he considered, letting his fingers trace the carved figures as they continued their descent. “How deep are we going?”

“Until the roots of the mountains,” Septimus answered, and they continued in silence.

Time seemed to dissipate in such surroundings, and only the slow decay of the candle gave any indication of how long they had walked. Finally, when their light source neared the end of its life, the steps no longer led further down, and soon after they disappeared entirely as the floor became flat and even. They walked a little distance longer and turned a corner in the tunnel. Immediately after, Septimus stopped.

The passage expanded into a vaulted cave. With amazement in his eyes, Brand stared at an ashen tree that grew in the middle of the naturally formed chamber. “How is this possible?” he marvelled. “Without light or water, rising from the rock?”

“I do not know,” the priest admitted. “I only know that at times, the leaves become rustled as if touched by wind in a distant land. Do not touch!” he added sharply as he saw Brand stepping forward and extending his hand towards the branches. “This place is sacred beyond what mortal minds may understand. We may not approach further.”

Brand stopped, letting his hand fall down. “What lies beyond the tree?”

In the darkness with such weak light, it was near impossible to see. “My eyes are too old to see it anymore, but I saw it when I first came to this place. It is a door without handle or lock or bolt. Where it leads, I do not know.”

Brand stared at the tree once more in wonder. “This is why the surcoats of the Templars bear a tree,” he realised.

Septimus nodded with a faint smile. “They are not aware of the reason themselves, but I believe so. This tree is the reason why the Temple exists. It is my holy charge and that of my predecessors to protect it at all costs. The Temple must be never be violated, this secret must never be revealed. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Holy One, though I do not see who would have reason to wish it harm.” Brand glanced at the priest briefly but quickly returned his gaze to the tree again.

“The outlanders, among others,” Septimus muttered darkly, and this gained him Brand’s attention again.

“What do they know of this place?”

“Little more than us, I wager, but enough. It is why they have waged war against us all these years. To them, there has never been any peace between our realms and theirs. Only a temporary cessation of hostilities.” Septimus grabbed Brand’s arm. “Do you understand?”

“I do.” Brand stared once more at the green-leaved ash. “We cannot allow any to defile this place.”

“Good. Now, the reason we came.” Septimus turned to face the exit. Next to it, leaning against the cave wall, was a sheathed sword. The priest reached out to take hold of it with his free hand. “I believe this sword was placed here to ensure a weapon was always at hand to defend the antechamber. Perhaps placed here before the Temple was built. Since that has never been necessary, I lend it to you.”

Brand received the scabbard with a sceptical look. “I hope you oiled it,” he remarked dryly.

“That is not needed. Draw the sword, but only an inch or two.”

Perplexed, Brand inspected the sword. The hilt was laid with gold, a priceless emerald sat in the pommel, and runes were carved into the cross-guard. “Even Dwarven-forged Nordsteel will lose its edge unless kept,” Brand muttered, grasping the hilt and slowly sliding the sword out. It left the scabbard silently and revealed the pattern of waves upon the blade. “Sea-steel!”

“That sword will never break or dull,” Septimus declared. “To wield it is a great responsibility. Do not draw it in anger,” the priest commanded, “or to commit an evil act. Never sully its blade.”

“I shall not,” Brand promised.

“When you have no further need of it, you must return it to me.”

“I shall.”

“Good,” Septimus nodded. He took the spare candle from his robe and used the dying flames of its predecessor to light it. “Let us return.”

~~~~

They made the ascent in silence, and arranged the furniture in Septimus’ chamber to hide the hatch. “There is one more thing,” the priest told Brand. “I need something. Meet me in the Hall of Holies.” They separated, and Brand returned to the ornate hall. A few acolytes were cleaning and removing offerings from the various altars and gave him little attention. He crossed the room to reach the statue of Rihimil and knelt by its altar.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I swear each year on this day, on Rihimil’s Day, I will give offerings in praise of your grace towards me.” He leaned forward, letting his brow touch the edge of the cool stone.

Rising again, he idled around for a little while until the Highfather returned, carrying a small jar and a piece of cloth. “Leave us,” the latter commanded, and the acolytes cleared the room without hesitation. “Over here,” he told Brand, nodding towards the altar for the Alfather. “Kneel.” Brand did as instructed, kneeling in front of the priest, who opened his jar. The scent of oil faintly spread, and Septimus let it pour slowly over Brand’s hair until it streamed down his face.

“In Sigvard’s name, I anoint you.

Born of the dragon are you.

Our prayer upon you.

The Lord of Dragons keep you.

By this altar and this blood,

The Lord of All bears witness.”

Setting the jar aside, Septimus took the knife in his belt and pricked his finger. As drops of blood appeared, he placed them upon Brand’s brow and finished bestowing the blessing of Sigvard upon him. “Rise,” he told Brand and gave him the cloth to clean his face. The priest took a deep breath. “I have done all I can to aid you now. Godfrey can ask no more.”

As his face appeared from behind the cloth, Brand stared at the priest in surprise. “Godfrey? The spy I met in Hæthiod? He is involved in all of this?”

“That sounds like him,” Septimus assented with a wry smile. “He believes you have the skill to push the outlanders back. For his sake, I have lent you all the aid I can think of. I hope he is right.”

“He is,” Brand declared firmly, placing one hand upon the hilt by his side.

“In that case, let us see to your escape.”

~~~~

Once night held sway, a lay brother and a blackrobe left the Temple through one of its discreet doors. On occasion, they encountered patrols of Red Hawks, but these were scarce; most of the Hawks were scouring Lowtown under the assumption that Brand would find it easiest to hide there. Furthermore, the blackrobe knew the paths to take that kept them in the shadows, and stealth seemed natural to him. They passed between the mansions of the nobility, moving along walls and through narrow streets. At one point, the priest knocked on a door and was granted passage through the herb garden of a public house with none of the patrons inside any wiser.

Their route was doubled in length, but eventually they stood underneath the imposing northern walls, its towers rising up against the night sky. “This is where I was told to bring you,” the blackrobe spoke quietly to the lay brother.

He gave a slight nod. “That is all I need.”

The priest inclined his head. “Dragon’s wing upon you,” he spoke in farewell and quickly made the sign of the seven-pointed star before disappearing. The lay brother turned to face the walls that lay between him and northern Adalrik.

Many towers dotted the outer fortifications, adding to their near impregnable strength. Even though the garrison was still lacking in numbers, the northern walls were fully manned, mindful of the rebels in Isarn. Some of the soldiers on duty stood watch upon the towers themselves, gazing out at the open plains, others patrolled along the wall, and the remainder huddled together inside for warmth.

In the tower rooms, the soldiers passed the time in the same ways as everywhere else, using cards, dice, and drink; if someone was blessed with a singing voice or knew how to play an instrument small enough to carry around in a pocket, they could often shorten the hours of sentinel duty and receive the gratitude of their peers for a performance.

Inside one of the many watch posts, one such occurrence had just taken place; one of the Order soldiers on duty had played a piece on his short flute and received applause for it. He gave a small bow, smiling as he put his instrument away.

“I didn’t realise you had wall duty tonight,” one of the others told him. “Someone told me you played for them while having the Citadel watch.”

“I did,” the flute-playing soldier replied. “I got assigned to this post just today.”

“The kitchen must have poisoned a whole lot again,” another remarked coarsely. “I was only sent here today as well.”

“Maybe the knight knows something,” a third considered. “Sir Fionn, who died and forced us to spend the night here?”

“Please say it was a painful death, full of writhing pain.”

“The kitchen’s cooking will usually do that.”

“I know as much as you worthless bastards,” the knight grunted from a chair in the corner, “which is to say, absolutely nothing.” He cut a piece from the apple in his hand and ate it demonstratively loud.

“What I don’t get is why they assigned a knight to this tower,” someone contemplated with a sly expression. “They don’t even have that at the gatehouse. Is it because we are so much trouble we need to be watched, or is someone punishing the good knight in our midst?”

“Shut your pie hole,” Fionn mumbled with bits of apple flying out of his own opening.

There was a knock on the door, which caused everyone inside to exchange glances. The guard was not to change for many hours, and everyone knew how Isarn had begun its rebellion by assaulting the garrison from inside the city, slaughtering their Order brethren upon the walls. Instinctively, everyone reached for their weapon.

“Well, I doubt they would knock first if they were here to fight,” Fionn declared, though he still set his knife and fruit aside to place his right hand on his sword hilt. “Open the door.”

One of the soldiers did while the others watched intently. “It’s just a lay brother,” he told the others, causing tension to reduce. “You got the wrong place, Brother, we have no wounded here,” he told the man at the door.

“On the contrary, Faramod, I believe this is the right place,” the lay brother replied.

The soldier took a step back with an astonished look. “You know me?”

The robed man followed, entering the tower. “I know you all.” He took down his hood and revealed himself to be Brand.

“Captain!” many of them exclaimed, rushing forward to get a better look and nearly stumbling over one another.

“It’s really you!”

“Lieutenant, you remember me?”

“Sir, you’re alive!”

Brand raised his hands to command silence. “I am for now. I need your help to escape the city and certain death. I place my life in your hands.”

The soldiers exchanged looks, and eyes darted between Brand and Fionn. The knight had stayed back, but now he sent Brand a scrutinising gaze. “So that is why I was sent here. All of us fought with you,” he realised. “Theobald is in on this, that old fox.” A smile slowly spread across his face. “You always had a good plan. How do you intend to get across the wall?”

Brand patted his own stomach. “I have forty feet of good rope under this robe.”

“Let us get to it,” Fionn declared. “Faramod, close the door and keep watch here. You dullards are with me.” He motioned towards several of the others and went for the stairs.

Quickly, the small group ascended the tower, reaching its top floor with the doors leading to the walls. A moment later, they could gaze down upon the ground below. “Bit of a drop,” someone mumbled.

“You, keep watch there. You, there,” Fionn swiftly commanded with a few gestures, sending men in either direction down the fortifications where other soldiers might appear. “Rope, Sir Adalbrand?”

Brand pulled his clothing up to reveal that many feet of rope was tied around his stomach, giving him the appearance of a portly lay brother. The soldiers grinned at the sight and untied the twine. Several of them took hold of one end. Standing between that and the inner wall, space was cramped but sufficient for their purpose. Brand took hold of the rope, tied it around himself, and looked at the men. “Do not drop me,” he spoke, half in jest, half in earnest.

“We always trusted you to lead us into combat and out again,” someone remarked. “Now it’s your turn to trust us.”

“I always did,” Brand told them emphatically. “I knew if I came here tonight, you would not fail me. Farewell, good men, and know you have my gratitude.”

“Time is sparse,” Fionn muttered brusquely. With a nod in acknowledgement, Brand grabbed the rope and jumped up between the crenellations. His next step took him outside the wall.

The rope tightened with the added strain of his body weight, and the men jerked forward and backward in response. Finding his footing against the stonework, Brand pulled at the rope to signal that they should lower him down.

Fionn looked over the edge, watching Brand’s slow descent. “This is more nerve-wrecking than any battle,” the knight admitted with a grumble. “I should have told him not to look down.”

Even without the knight’s sage advice, Brand continued. The soldiers began to complain and move restlessly while grasping the rope, as much as their confined position allowed. “How much further, sir?”

“We are only halfway,” Fionn told them. “Hold on, you weaklings!”

“With respect, sir, you could help.”

“The rope is not long enough for any more to grab,” the knight explained with regret. “Damn!” he suddenly added.

“What?” several exclaimed.

“I thought the rope was unravelling. He is fine, he is fine.”

“Sir, is what we are doing treason?”

“A bit late to ask that question if it bothers you,” someone else pointed out.

“If your arms hurt, it is because you spend your energy talking,” Fionn told them in his brusque manner. “Be quiet!”

There was some timid grumbling, but they did as the knight commanded. Suddenly the weight disappeared from the rope, and the soldiers tumbled backwards into the inner wall. “Did the rope come undone?”

“He did not fall,” Fionn reassured the soldiers. “He reached the ground. He is already away.”

“What a night!” someone exclaimed as they began pulling up the rope.

“Indeed,” the knight assented. “Of course, if any of you breathe a word of this to anyone, even your wives or sweethearts, I will feed you your own bowels.”

~~~~

A few miles north of Middanhal, a small band of men sat gathered under a great oak. A few of them wore Order surcoats, some wore tunics without distinct markings, and one was armed only with a lute. The tree stood in solitude by the road, making it distinct and an obvious meeting spot. Some of the men were constantly scouting, though the darkness of the night allowed for little visibility. The others, especially the youngest, sat huddled to keep warm.

“Maybe we should use that lute for firewood,” Matthew jested.

Troy sent him an indignant look. “Do you also butcher small children for meat?”

“To be fair, firewood is better use for that instrument than anything you can do with it,” Nicholas jested, earning him the same scornful look as Matthew.

“That’s harsh. Troy is getting pretty good,” Quentin claimed, and now it was his turn to receive various looks.

“Quentin said something nice about someone,” Matthew stammered with open mouth.

“That’s as glowing a recommendation as you’ll ever get,” Nicholas grinned.

“That’s sure to get me entrance at every castle between here and Dvaros,” Troy mused.

“I’m surprised you’ve come along,” Quentin said with a glance towards Nicholas. “I didn’t think that girl of yours would let you out of Lowtown.”

“Ellen understands,” Nicholas replied serenely. “She’s a reasonable woman.”

“Or she’s already tired of you,” Quentin jeered.

Nicholas widened his eyes in fear. “You think so?”

“Will you bleeding morons shut your claptraps?” Geberic barked. “This isn’t a trip for leisure.” By his side, Glaukos allowed the corner of his mouth to tug upwards, but he did not speak.

“We have been here hours,” Matthew complained. “Are you sure you understood the message right?”

“There wasn’t much to misunderstand,” Geberic retorted. “Tonight at this oak.”

“Could it be a trap?” Quentin questioned.

“Possibly,” Geberic admitted doubtfully, “but if they wanted to capture us, they could have done so already. That blackrobe knew where to find us, after all.”

“Do you think we did the right thing?” Glaukos asked quietly of Geberic. “Perhaps someone intended to lure us away from the lady Arndis?”

“I didn’t think of that,” Geberic replied with a curse. “But I can’t imagine the blackrobes would do such a thing.”

“There!” Glaukos interjected. “I see someone,” he added in a quiet voice.

“It’s a lay brother,” Matthew told them.

Soon, the shape had approached sufficiently for the rest to confirm what Matthew had seen. When the lay brother threw down his hood, elation erupted among the men.

“Sir!”

“Milord!”

“Lieutenant!”

“I’ll be damned,” Troy admitted, leaping to his feet. “I have material for three different songs now.”

Brand removed the robe entirely and shivered slightly in the chill of the night. “Better the cold than hide who I am,” he told his men smiling. “Hopefully I will never wear another’s feathers again.”

“My lord, what happens now?” asked Glaukos.

Brand looked at each of his men in turn, letting his gaze linger upon them. “You have all risked the wrath of powerful enemies to stand by my side. I will never forget this,” he told them emphatically. “As long as I live, you shall all have a place at my table. When I have a table again,” he added wryly and was rewarded with grins. “For now, we flee the reach of the lord protector and his henchmen.” He turned his gaze east. “We make for Heohlond.” The others voiced their assent and the small band set out.

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About the author

Quill

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.

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