The Solace of Spring
The band of riders that entered Silfrisarn had little in common with the men that had fled Middanhal. The carriage with the emblem of House Hardling had been discarded and extra mounts procured instead. The Hawk surcoats and torn clothing had been exchanged for wool or leather tunics in the first village they had reached inside the jarldom of Isarn. Some of the villagers had been sceptical when sighting the ragged group, but the peasants were won over by the noble manner of the sons of Isarn, Athelstan in particular; soon they were in part stupefied by having such company, in part eager to please in any way possible. With the help of proper food, the escaped prisoners slowly regained their strength and began to resemble their former selves.
The guards upon the towers of Silfrisarn, easily recognising who was returning, shouted the news with joy. It was spread swiftly through the city, as these were the first good tidings to arrive to the city in many months; with Isarn having suffered several defeats and knowing that the siege of Grenwold was a precursor to its own, Silfrisarn was starved for good news.
Progressing through the city, some of the riders responded to the cheers with their own; for Isenwald, it was an entirely new experience to be lauded. Prince Gerhard and Jerome, the Red Hawk, had subdued reactions; they were now truly in the grasp of Jarl Isenhart, enemy of the Crown.
Reaching the keep, the riders dismounted with expressions of relief and gratitude. Their arrival caused a great commotion; servants dropped whatever they were holding, guards pointed and shouted, while the extended family of the jarl came running to greet their returning kin.
Athelbold, the jarl’s cousin, came swifter than most others and embraced Athelstan with the warmth of a brother. Behind him came his brood, shouting and greeting the kinsmen they had been told they would never see again. Isenwald laughed freely and even dour Eumund smiled.
“It has been a gloomy winter,” Athelbold declared, “but the new year has brought solace. Welcome home!”
“Thank you, Cousin,” Athelstan replied. “We come not empty-handed, but bring good tidings as well. Where is my brother?”
“I left him in the great hall. Be warned.” Athelbold lowered his voice. “His demeanour has been foul ever since victory in this war became a fool’s hope. Do not expect a warm welcome.”
“Consider me warned,” Athelstan told him quietly with an understanding expression. “Let us greet your father,” he spoke to his nephews, raising his voice. “We have much to tell.”
The jarl of Isarn sat in his great chair lined with the skin of the bear he had killed in his youth, proving himself worthy of his title. A cup and pitcher lay before him, both empty. As the newly arrived entered the hall, he looked towards them.
“My sons and brother return,” he declared. “Would that the army you lost returned with you.”
His sons glanced at each other, whereas Athelstan stepped forward. “Some things cannot be mended, but the fates have deemed it right that your sons should not die to the sound of cheers, surrounded only by enemies. It is a sign,” he claimed, “and the first step towards regaining what has been lost.”
The jarl rose and approached his family. “I have heard such promises before, yet here we are in Silfrisarn when we should be in Middanhal.”
“Times have changed,” Athelstan assured him. “We do not arrive alone but have travelled with the man who rescued us from certain death, Prince Gerhard.” He gestured towards the prince behind him, who stepped forward.
The jarl looked sceptically at the youth. “And did you do this out of the goodness of your heart?”
Losing the intimidated look upon his face, Gerhard cleared his throat. “I hope to remedy the ills that plague our realm.”
Isenhart stared at him with a scrutinising gaze. “Do you, now,” he muttered.
“I will explain it all,” Athelstan promised.
“Well met, Father,” Isenwald spoke up. “It – is good to be home.”
The jarl let his eyes rest on his sons, and his shoulders dropped as tension left his body. “I am glad you are home,” he admitted, grasping each of them around the neck. “You are sons of Isarn, and if those silkworms had hurt either of you, I would have flayed them alive.” Eumund did not respond but gave an awkward smile in his father’s grasp while Isenwald grinned happily.
“Boys!” A new voice broke through the crowd to announce a woman pushing her way forward. “My sons, my sons,” she cried out, and they turned around to face her. She grabbed them, hugging them both as best she could. “My boys, I thought you were lost to me,” Halla confessed with tears appearing in her eyes.
“All this wailing,” Isenhart complained. “Make your greetings and refresh yourself after the journey. Find me in my study afterwards, but do not keep me waiting,” he commanded his brother, who gave a quick nod. The jarl left, leaving his wife behind to resume her outbursts of joy, hugging her sons tightly.
Less than an hour later, Athelstan and Athelbold had joined Isenhart in his private chambers. “Tell me,” the jarl commanded.
“Prince Gerhard brings a proposal for peace,” Athelstan explained. “On behalf of Lord Konstans.”
“That snake,” Isenhart sneered. “As if he can be trusted.”
“He ensured our release,” his brother pointed out. “We would all have been executed by now if not for this gesture of goodwill.”
“He could simply have demanded leniency at the Adalthing if he wanted to spare your lives,” the jarl argued. “And why does this proposal come from the dragonlord and not the lord protector?”
“Perhaps to protect his position,” Athelbold considered. “This may not be popular among the lords of the Adalthing.”
“This smell like a trap,” the jarl declared, “and gods damn me if it does not look like a trap!”
“You have not yet heard the proposal,” his brother reminded him.
“Fine. What deal does the so-called dragonlord of Adalrik offer?”
“If the war comes to an end immediately, we will all receive full pardons, and your title as jarl and member of the Adalthing remains untouched,” Athelstan explained. “In return, we must pay a geld equal to the sum that Jarl Vale has spent on his mercenaries.”
“Of course,” Isenhart scoffed, “the Bookkeeper is worried about his coin.”
“Besides that, we must support the lord protector in any proposals he brings to the Adalthing while his office lasts, including choosing a new heir.”
“I can see why the lord protector would not wish to attach his name to such terms,” Athelbold smiled sardonically.
“Why this demand?” asked the jarl. “Vale chose that brat to be prince.”
“He must be regretting his choice.”
“This cannot be offered in earnest,” Isenhart exclaimed. “Even if we agreed to these terms, the moment we enter Middanhal, landfrid or not, they will put chains on our hands and a noose around our neck!”
“Vale may be eager to see the war end,” Athelstan speculated. “The mercenaries must be draining his coffers dry.”
“That I can believe,” the jarl scoffed. “But this is clearly a trap. Either they will ambush us at these negotiations, or they will once we return to Middanhal.”
“If the peace is concluded in public, sworn upon the statue of Disfara at the Adalthing,” Athelbold considered, “even Vale would not dare to break such a peace. Even these southerners must hold some things sacred.”
“Perhaps,” Isenhart replied doubtfully, “but that merely means they will not let it come that far. They will ambush us the moment we leave this castle.”
“Let them,” Athelstan declared self-assured. “We will bring our forces, and they may bring theirs. Let us see how these sell-swords fare against the sons of Isarn.”
“I would place more faith in that boast, Brother, if you had not already lost one battle on the field.”
“I underestimated my opponent,” Athelstan confessed. “I fought my former squire without knowing it, and he took advantage of my ignorance.”
“And what if that should happen again?” Isenhart questioned. “I will not have you throw my remaining warriors away.”
“They tried to behead him some days ago,” his brother declared dryly, “so I think he is done fighting for them.”
“Athelstan is right,” said their cousin. “If this is genuine, we cannot hope for better terms. If it is false, let us unmask their dishonour by slaughtering their hired blades.”
Isenhart glanced from one to the other. “We stay ready to fight at the first sign of treachery,” he impressed upon them. “And this prince goes with us as our hostage. If they prove false, he pays the price.”
“Agreed,” Athelstan assented.
The jarl waited three days while his army prepared, letting his returned kin find rest in their ancestral home. On the third morrow, the soldiers of Isarn rode out. With arms and armour made from Nordsteel and led by Isenhart, Athelstan, Athelbold, and Eumund, warriors of renown, they were a fearsome sight. The citizens cheered them on; the ghosts of previous defeats were chased away by the steadfast sound emanating from thousands of boots marching through the streets. With Athelstan returning to lead their armies, the men and women of Isarn breathed easier; the war no longer seemed certain to be lost.
From a window in the keep, Isenwald watched his brethren ride out. He looked wistful for a moment, but he soon smiled as he held his mother’s arm and lent her his support. In the absence of his father, he had been named to rule the jarldom until Isenhart’s return, and the young man seemed to stand taller than he had ever before.