Court, Keep, and Castle
Along the great river Mihtea, as it flowed towards the sea, lay Fontaine. It was the capital city of Ealond and the third largest in the Seven Realms. While Middanhal was home to the high king, the Order and the Temple, and Herbergja was the economic heart of Adalmearc, Fontaine was the city of craftsmen and artisans. Where its rivals had guilds numbering in scores, Fontaine counted its guilds in the hundreds. Materials came from distant lands, such as wool or cotton, iron or copper, dye, leather, timber, and anything else conceivable to be put to looms, under hammer, into vats, or worked upon with a variety of tools unique to each trade. Much of it was sold to the citizens, who were accustomed to a wide selection of every item available to their households; the rest, notably dyed cloth and expensive wine, was sold in other lands with a reputation for excellent quality.
There was one guild in Fontaine that had no counterpart in any other city, and it was another reason for the capital’s fame; it was the guild of engineers. It had been founded nearly eight centuries ago by Renaud, the famous architect who built the double walls of Middanhal and its domed Temple. In some respects, it functioned like any other guild; it was an association of masters within this particular craft, regulating who could work in this field, guaranteeing quality, settling disputes, and providing support for members of the fraternity. Since most of their work was overseeing the construction of buildings, quality was imperative; flaws in the work meant collapse and possibly death for any unfortunate soul caught by debris.
The masters took on apprentices for their workshop, who helped draw up plans and acted as right hands while learning the trade. Unlike most other crafts, extensive study of mathematics was needed along with the usual knowledge of materials, tools, and so forth. Some apprentices were fortunate and could take their master’s place in the guild when the time came; others sought employ elsewhere. While the other realms had builders of their own, a man trained by the guilds of engineers in Fontaine was sure to find work and be well paid anywhere. In this manner, many trained engineers carried on the tradition of Renaud in building castles and fortifications; finally, some left the city with the opposite intentions, seeking work as siege engineers. Wherever defensive walls stood, siege machinery was needed to break through them.
In one workshop, a young man sat hunched over his workbench with parchment and charcoal. Part of his work showed various runes in complicated formulas, while the rest was a curious design unlike anything else. It was a stone thrower of sorts, but instead of utilising torsion, it worked through a counterweight. His face was contorted in concentration as he scribbled numbers continuously, biting his lower lip.
“Armand?” a voice called out. Its owner came descending down the stairs into the workroom.
A start went through the young man, followed by a chagrined expression as he stared at the runes he had written. “Yes, master,” he replied absent-mindedly.
“Look at me when I speak to you,” the old engineer reprimanded him.
“Forgive me, master,” Armand hurried to respond, turning to look at the other man.
“Did you deliver the plans to Master Hamid?”
Confusion took hold of Armand for a moment. “Not yet,” he explained. “I was going to on the way home.”
“You mean you forgot,” his master reproached him. “Very well. See that you do.”
“I promise, master.”
The older man scratched his bearded cheek. “You better. I am considering letting you oversee the construction of Master Hamid’s warehouse, but I need to know I can rely on you.”
Armand’s face glowed. “You can, Master Lambert, I promise!”
“You need strict attention to detail,” the engineer spoke sternly. “Every number must be checked twice. All the material must be inspected thoroughly. You must supervise everything, every plank of timber cut.”
“Of course, master,” Armand nodded eagerly.
Lambert sent him a discerning look. “Very well. We’ll talk later of Master Hamid’s warehouse.”
“You may leave for the day,” Lambert told him.
Armand leapt to his feet, gathering his parchments. “Thank you, master,” he said, making sure to turn and look at the old man as he spoke. He almost took a step towards the door, stopped his movement, and gathered up the plans for a warehouse lying on a shelf above his desk. With a smile and a nod towards Lambert, he left the workshop and stepped onto the bustling streets of Fontaine.
The capital of Ealond shared one trait with its counterpart in Adalrik; the Mihtea flowed through both cities, providing them with fresh water. The similarities ended there. In Fontaine, it was the southern part that held the most notable features, including the royal castle and the great temple dedicated to Idisea. Instead of being surrounded by mountains and having few gates and bridges to emphasise defensive capabilities, Fontaine lay on a flat plain and had plenty of entryways. Merchants and their storehouses congregated around the river, using its swiftness to transport their goods, and the many workshops depending on these materials spread out like fans from the surrounding warehouses and marketplaces.
Walking hastily, occasionally bumping into other people and nearly dropping his parchments, Armand made his way from the craftsmen’s quarters to the statelier districts belonging to the affluent merchants of Fontaine. Tall spires rose ahead of him, signalling wealth and power. At length, he stopped outside one particular house that rose several stories high, knocking on the door. His eyes admired the stonework and construction while he waited until the door was opened by a young servant girl.
Her appearance suggested she came from Alcázar and beyond, same as her master; she stared mutely at Armand, who smiled to her. “Hullo,” he greeted her. “I have these plans for Master Hamid to inspect and approve.” He extended the bundle towards her.
Silently, she hurried back into the house, leaving the young apprentice to stare perplexed at the empty doorway. Shortly after, a stately woman appeared. “You are from Master Lambert’s workshop, yes?” she asked; her Mearcspeech came rolling off her tongue.
“Yes,” Armand smiled. “The drawings for Master Hamid’s expanded warehouse are complete along with calculations of material, workforce, and everything else.” Once more, he reached out with the parchments, letting the woman grab them.
“Thank you,” she replied curtly. “My husband will contact your master once he has seen them.”
“Very good, mistress,” the apprentice spoke with a courteous bow. She closed the door without further words. He stood gazing at the timberwork of the doorframe briefly before he gathered his wits and left.
Wealth in Fontaine was generally determined by how close someone lived to the river. The semicircles of the city defences extended in arches north and south, and the poorest lived furthest from the waters, closest to the walls. With the slender towers of the Raven Court and the broad turrets of the royal castle behind him, Armand walked north and away from the Mihtea.
The streets grew narrow and more crowded the further he came; in most places, the houses lay directly against each other and rose several floors into the air. Armand’s destination was one of these with nothing setting it apart. Entering, he greeted those inside briefly and disappeared up a flight of stairs to reach another door.
Passing through, he walked into a small room that held a bed, a table, a few chairs, a drawer, and a small loom. By the latter sat a woman, no more than twenty years old. “Armand,” she smiled.
He walked over to kiss her cheek. “Hullo, my dear,” he greeted her, dumping his parchments on the table.
“Anything new to tell?” Her hands expertly moved the loom, pausing only for a moment as she looked at him.
“Master Lambert might let me oversee the construction of the new warehouse we’re going to build,” he related excitedly.
“That’s wonderful!” She sent him a glowing smile before returning her eyes to her work.
“He made no promises, but if I do good work the next days, I’m sure he will hold to it.”
“You might be made a master sooner than we thought,” she spoke happily.
“That might be getting ahead of ourselves,” Armand cautioned her, sitting down on the bed after taking his shoes off.
“That smells,” the woman complained, wrinkling her nose.
“Nicolette with her delicate nose,” he grinned.
“Nothing delicate about your feet,” she retorted. “Wash them.”
He sat up and glanced down into a barrel between the bed and the table. “We’re nearly out of water.”
“I’ll fetch some tomorrow when the water bearer makes his rounds,” Nicolette promised.
“Do you need coin?”
“There are some petties on the drawer,” she explained, nodding towards the furniture in question. Her glance fell on the parchments he had brought home. “Are you still working on that?”
“I am sure the principle is sound,” Armand claimed. “Using a counterweight should allow for immensely more force than simple torsion.”
“You’ve explained that to me already,” she told him patiently.
“I just can’t quite get the final nail in,” he complained.
“Wash,” she reminded him.
He grabbed a small bucket and poured water from the barrel into a small bowl, using it to wash his feet. “The models I’ve built all crack under the weight even though I’ve calculated it precisely.”
Nicolette ceased her work and leaned over to pick up the drawing with its runes. “It does look fearsome. Seeing these numbers remind me of Brother Erwan back home, sitting in his lore house teaching letters and tell-craft.”
“Feels like an age ago,” Armand added.
“Do you think we could be wed back home? Our parents would be happy to celebrate us, I’m sure.”
He scratched the back of his head. “I won’t be able to leave the city if I’m to oversee the warehouse construction,” he considered. “We’d have to wait until after that business is done.”
She nodded slightly. “That’s fine. I don’t mind waiting. It’ll be merrier to have the wedding surrounded by family.”
“Quite right,” he agreed, drying himself after washing.
Nicolette’s attention returned to his drawings of the imagined stone thrower. “I envy that you get to learn so much from Master Lambert. I always liked going to the lore house.”
“When I’m a journeyman, there’ll be lots you can assist me with,” he promised, leaning back into the bed. “Master Lambert’s wife helps him with the calculations too, I’ve noticed.”
She let go of the loom to pick up his sheet of numbers. “I’d really enjoy that, I think. There’s an elegance in arithmetic, I find. It’s so nice when everything adds up and fits together neatly.”
Armand sat up again. “You’ll get all the calculations you could ever wish for,” he declared. “In fact, would you mind looking at my work?” He gestured at the parchment. “I may have made an error somehow, and you have a better head for numbers than me.”
“I’d be happy to, dearest,” Nicolette promised.
“Let it rest for now, though. This humble apprentice has missed his betrothed all day long.” He launched himself like a projectile from a ballista to envelop his arms around her, making the chair topple and both of them fall to the ground; the sound of her surprised shriek became mixed with his laughter and yelling from downstairs, voicing the other residents’ opinions of noisy neighbours.
South of the river lay the largest temple in the Realms hallowed to Idisea. It was commonly known as the Raven Court, being inhabited by sisters of that order. Tall, elegant towers rose in every corner of the complex towards the sky. It was built around a courtyard, where a fountain sprung and flowed through until it joined with the waters of the Mihtea. The mysteries surrounding this wellspring were numerous, giving various explanations for why this particular fountain was sacred; if the norns knew the truth, they did not share it. Regardless, there was a steady stream of visitors each day to drink from its waters to purify themselves, paying for the privilege. It was also a prerequisite for being received into audience by the Veiled, the highest priestess in the Order of the Raven.
All norns were believed to have powers of prophecy as servants of Idisea; this allowed them to speak the birth words when a child was born, giving a hint of what future was in store for the newborn. The Veiled was especially blessed by the goddess and would receive omens and portents. After drinking from the fountain, and for an additional fee, supplicants would be granted entrance to the highest of the spires in the Raven Court, where the Veiled would wait.
It was not certain if the high priestess actually wore a veil; she sat behind a curtain and could only be seen as a shadow against its fabric. The visitor would enter and sit on a chair without back, staring at the curtain while flanked by two temple guards armed with staffs; Idisea did not allow any in her service to wield sharp weapons meant for killing. Once seated, the Veiled would address the believer.
“You have come before the Veil, but only she blessed by Idisea may gaze beyond. Tell me, traveller, what do you seek?” The voice was deep and hoarse.
“I’m not actually here to ask you anything,” Godfrey admitted with a wry smile. “I carry a message for you.”
“Then why are you disturbing me?” The priestess’ voice turned sharp. “I do not commune with the goddess on a whim!”
“I do not spend thirty silvers on a whim either,” the traveller replied dryly, looking at the guards; neither of them were amused. “I am to ensure that this message is delivered to you personally. Your acolytes and wardens did not take kindly to that request, so I found another solution.”
“What letter could you possibly bear of such importance?” There was a sneer in her voice. “Very well, leave it with the guards and I shall read it.”
“I am to speak it,” Godfrey explained. “The message is from the Highfather. He warns you that you have strayed from the path. Return to it swiftly, or punishment will be severe.”
“How dare you!” The shape behind the curtain leapt up to stand, causing her chair to fall backwards. “You threaten me in my own sanctum! I should have the guards beat you bloody!”
“I do not think that is what the Highfather had in mind,” Godfrey remarked.
“Another reason to have you flogged,” the Veiled spoke with anger. “Pretending to speak for the Highfather is blasphemy!”
The two guards in the room took hold of their staves with both hands and moved threateningly towards Godfrey. He rose to his feet and did not dignify either guard with a glance, staring at the curtain instead. “The darkest dreams belong to those who see only darkness in others,” he spoke coldly. “Your eyes are as blind to the truth as your ears are deaf to my warning.” He turned around; the guards looked at the curtain waiting for orders, and before any were given, Godfrey was already gone, leaving a seething priestess behind.
A cart rolled shakily on cobbled stones to enter one of the courtyards of the temple; it bore a cage, marking it as the property of a justiciar, which was a common sight in this place. Less typical was the fact that the barred prison was empty and the prisoners sat with their shackles on the driver’s seat. Only a big hound was in the back, sticking its head forward to peer between the travellers.
“That’s madness,” Ghislain stated vehemently. “How can two gods be one?”
“The way I see it, the Hidden is simply a name assumed,” Michel explained. “Before she became the Veiled, the high priestess must have had a name like any other, right?”
“But there are seven gods,” the justiciar argued. “Not six with one in disguise.”
“If you think this is mad talk, ask him why we swear by the Seven and Eighth,” Clarisse inserted.
“I would, but we’ve arrived.” There was a tone of regret in Ghislain’s voice as he halted the cart. His dog gave a cheerful bark at seeing familiar surroundings, jumping down to greet the approaching stable hands. Ghislain stepped down onto the ground as well, looking back at his prisoners. “You’ll have to come with me,” he informed them almost apologetically.
“Of course, Master Ghislain,” Michel assented. Clarisse grumbled but did not resist.
The justiciar was leading them across the yard when a traveller came from the opposite direction. He wore cloak and hat for long journeys and had a stout walking staff in one hand; a sword was strapped to his belt, but nothing marked him as out of the ordinary. Yet by chance, as they approached each other, he glanced in Michel’s direction, and the giant man returned the look; when their eyes locked, Michel gave an anguished cry and fell to the ground.
“The eagle flies, the raven cries, the dragon dies!” The words poured like a river from his mouth, and he clenched his arms around his knees. “Hide in shadows, walk in light. Spare us, spare us!”
“Silence!” Godfrey commanded. Only Michel seemed to hear, as the attention of everyone else was upon him, but he immediately ceased the flood of words.
“Brother,” Clarisse exclaimed worried; she sat down to cradle his head in her lap and stroke his forehead. “It’s fine, you’re fine, you hear me, everything’s fine.”
“What’s wrong with him? Is he touched?” Ghislain asked concerned. Sisters of the order were approaching from every direction. In the background, Godfrey slipped away.
“It happened to him as a child at times,” Clarisse explained, comforting her brother as best she could. “I thought it was gone.”
“What can we do?” enquired the justiciar.
“Just give him some time.”
“Master Justice, what is the meaning of this disturbance?” A norn with a stern expression stared at Ghislain. She had a birthmark with the colour and shape of a strawberry on her brow.
“These are my prisoners, brought for trial,” Ghislain explained. “He had a fit of some sort, but it’ll be fine, Sister.”
“If these are deviants or blasphemers, have them thrown in the dungeons where they belong!”
“All in good time, Sister,” Ghislain spoke through gritted teeth. “Until they are in their cells, I am in charge of them.”
“Make it fast,” the priestess demanded with an angry look.
A sneer ran across Ghislain’s face before he turned his back on the norn, bending low to examine Michel. “How is he?”
“He seems calm again,” Clarisse replied.
Taking hold of the big man under his shoulder, Ghislain helped him to stand. “Let’s get you inside,” he declared. “I’ll – I’ll try and choose a nice cell,” he promised with an awkward tone of voice. Clarisse followed behind as they entered the temple complex.
In the southernmost part of Fontaine lay the Order keep by one of the marketplaces in the city. The fortress was large enough to accommodate a garrison of several thousand soldiers, though it currently held only a few hundred. Unlike Middanhal, it did not also serve as the city watch, so it did not necessarily require the same numbers; its only purpose was to be the extended arm of the Order in Fontaine, acting as the physical presence of the high king. It currently had a handful of knights; the rest were scattered across the numerous cities of Ealond or had been sent to Hæthiod for the campaign.
Despite their low numbers, the Order forces maintained strict discipline, and the knights trained daily. Every day, the marshal of the realm was found among his peers and soldiers. He was the tallest of any man in the garrison with a powerful physique, making for an imposing sight that commanded respect; in contrast, his black eyes and white teeth easily lit up in smiles and laughter, making him well liked among his men.
The knight he sparred against this particular day was almost as tall and had the same eyes as the marshal. In contrast, he was far more slender of frame, and while the marshal’s skin was black, the other knight was lighter in colour; yet, when he sent a challenging smile after striking a hit in their training match, another similarity between them appeared.
“Do not grow bold,” the marshal warned his opponent; each sized the other man up, preparing for another exchange.
“None may mock Sir Martel and live to tell the tale,” the knight laughed; his merrymaking was merely a ruse as he immediately followed up by striking out.
The marshal was not so easily duped and easily took the blow with his shield, lashing out with his own blade against the knight’s shin, landing a hit. “I would not kill a man so clearly beneath me,” Martel retorted, “just cut him down to size!”
His opponent limped backwards; after a moment’s respite, he struck again. Again, the marshal proved superior, trapping the knight’s sword with his own shield, holding it in place long enough to slam his own blade against the knight’s helmet. The latter staggered backwards, shaking his head.
“Brother, are you well?” Martel asked slightly concerned.
The response came after a short pause. “Fine, fine. You caught me by surprise.” The knight took a few deep breaths.
“That will suffice for today, I think,” the marshal declared while the onlookers cheered at the display of his prowess.
“If you feel you have had enough,” his opponent jested, removing his helmet and wavering a bit where he stood.
“It will do for now,” Martel smiled, supporting his brother as they walked over to a water barrel and refreshed themselves.
“I heard a strange rumour last night.”
“You are always hearing strange rumours, Gerard,” the marshal told him with another smile before splashing more water onto his face.
“Yes, yes, but this one could be important,” his brother insisted.
“You know that the king has summoned his vassals to renew their fealty to him?”
“I remember,” Martel said patiently. He began to unstrap the bracers from his arms.
“I have been told,” Gerard continued with a lowered voice, “that some of them are bringing large numbers of troops along.”
The marshal frowned. “For what reason?”
“That is why it seems strange. I cannot imagine any benevolent cause, leaving only malevolent possibilities.”
“The king is young and perhaps not popular,” Martel contemplated, “but it is far step to outright rebellion. The nobles dislike each other as much as they dislike the king. None of them would have the support to make any attempt.”
“Probably not,” Gerard conceded, “yet the timing would fit. Adalrik is in civil war, the Order is waging a campaign in Hæthiod.”
“There has been peace in Ealond for decades,” the marshal brought up. “I thought the strife of past years was behind us.”
“There was peace because King Rainier’s father knew how to rein the nobles in,” the knight pointed out. “His son may not have the same strength.”
“What are we to do? With a few hundred men, we cannot secure the city. We should warn the king,” Martel considered, scratching his trimmed beard.
“There is also the possibility that the king has commanded these armies to gather,” Gerard suggested hesitantly. “If so, warning him will inform him that we are aware of his plans.”
“What plans?” asked Martel confused.
“What does every king of Ealond want? To control Herbergja and Tricaster. Holding those cities along with Portesur means a stranglehold on nearly all the trade in the Realms,” the knight explained.
“Breaking the high king’s peace,” the marshal mumbled, “attacking another realm, I cannot imagine King Rainier would dare to do so.”
“It is also hard to imagine the nobles seeking to overthrow the king, yet one or the other must be true.”
Martel was silent for a while. “What shall we do? With a few hundred men, we can neither defend the city against the nobles nor stop the king, regardless of what is true.”
“A few hundred men in the right place can make a great difference,” Gerard claimed. “Let me investigate further. Have the men prepare to move out at moment’s notice to seize either the palace or the gate. Perhaps both.”
Martel nodded. “I will.” He gave a wry smile. “They should have made you marshal.”
Gerard slapped him on the shoulder. “You look the part better, little brother. Visit Mother soon. She asks for you.”
“I will,” the marshal promised, and they went their separate ways.
Along with the Raven Court and the Order keep, Fontaine’s most noticeable building was the royal castle. It did not have the immense fortifications of the Citadel or the splendour of its counterpart in Plenmont, but lay somewhere in between; it was a sign of how the kings of Ealond desired to present their wealth to their subjects while also being able to defend themselves against those same people.
The king sat in the royal chambers, reading. He was pale and lanky with eyes and hair of dark hue; his beard was trimmed in the latest fashion, leaving a ring of hair around his mouth but his cheeks smooth. A servant announced his entrance with a knock. “Yes?” the king enquired.
“The seneschal seeks audience, Your Majesty.”
“Show him in,” the king granted. He closed his book and looked up as the steward of his realm entered.
“Your Majesty.” The seneschal gave a deep bow.
“Duke Belvoir approaches, Your Majesty. He should be able to enter the city in a few days.”
“My other vassals?”
“They are all in or near the city, Your Majesty.”
Rainier nodded. “Summon them in two days’ time to affirm their fealty to me.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The seneschal gave another bow and left his master.
The king stood up to walk over to a window. Looking out, his gaze was attracted by the slender spires of the temple and the sturdy turrets of the keep. In between lay great swathes of houses and workshops. On the river, boats were constantly being docked or departing. His eyes followed a ship with tall masts, lazily following the slow current towards Herbergja. Returning to his seat, Rainier took out his book again and resumed reading.
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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.