In the following days, the travellers marched swiftly. There were no markers denoting the border between Adalrik and Heohlond, but eventually, the group entered a village to barter for food; not having to hunt or forage would speed them on their journey. While buying provisions with the silver they could scrape together, the villagers confirmed that they had reached Clan Cameron’s territory; they were in the highlands.
Some of the men breathed easier upon hearing this. The law of the Adalthing only ruled Adalrik, and the might of its lord protector ended at the borders; should any be pursuing them into Heohlond, they would be in breach of the law, not Brand and his followers. Others did not share this feeling of relief; an enemy could still be hunted outside the confines of the law, someone pointed out.
At the end of the day’s march, when Glaukos took first watch, he was approached by Geberic. “Can we talk?”
“We already seem to be,” Glaukos answered.
Geberic looked towards where Brand lay sleeping. “Does the captain seem strange to you?”
“He is leading us as always,” Glaukos spoke dismissively.
“True, but he hardly talks. He seems changed,” Geberic claimed with concern. “I remember him when we crossed the Weolcans. We were in worse straits than now, I’d argue, but he never seemed affected. Now, he’s not his usual self.”
“Geberic,” his companion spoke with patience, “you were at Polisals with me and the captain.”
“We charged headlong into the enemy, completely surrounded. We should have died,” Glaukos declared flatly. “By some divine miracle, we won the battle instead. The captain risked his life without second thought to defeat the outlanders and free Hæthiod.”
“What’s your point?”
“After doing this, he comes home to his own people, and they try to chop his head off as a reward. Of course the captain’s changed,” the heathman spoke brusquely. “I am only surprised he did not take it worse.”
“Sure, I know that,” Geberic defended himself. “I just meant – gods, I’ve been taking orders from him for a while now, and it feels natural. But sometimes I look at him and realise, he’s only some twenty-odd years. Half my age, barely old enough to be a man.”
“Age has nothing to do with it,” Glaukos told him. “His fate made him a captain, same as ours made us his defenders.”
“Fate,” Geberic snorted. “You believe that?”
“Some twelve years ago, I was a King’s Blade,” the Hæthian began to relate. “The king died on my watch, and I spent a decade keeping order in a tavern, throwing drunks onto the street for a few silvers a day. Out of nowhere, I became a Queen’s Blade. Finally, I could look people in the eyes again.”
“Cured your blindness, did it?”
Glaukos ignored the remark. “When the outlanders took Tothmor, I stayed behind to cover my queen’s escape. I should have been captured, but I evaded them. I fought their occupation for months,” he continued his story, “until that went bad as well, and I should have been killed. Just as we should both have died at Polisals.” He gave a shrug. “Fate has kept me alive and will do so until it is my time to die. You live and you die as decreed by greater powers than us.”
Geberic stared at him. “That’s completely useless advice.”
“It was not advice,” Glaukos informed him, keeping watch of the surrounding darkness. “Think what you want. I follow the captain because protecting him gives me purpose. I care not what your reasons are.”
“I thought you went with us for the chance to kill outlanders,” Geberic remarked with a sly expression.
“That as well. If you are going to sit here anyway, you can take the watch,” the heathman declared, moving to lie down.
“Fine,” Geberic grumbled. He ended up spending more time looking at his companions than his surroundings until one of the kingthanes relieved him of duty.
They kept the same course with the Weolcans on their right. On occasion, they came across other travellers or shipments of tin and stone from the mines and quarries by the mountains. Few engaged with them; the sight of fourteen men, most of them in heavy armour, deterred others from approaching. When they entered a village on occasion to trade for food, it always took a while to convince the local residents that they intended to pay for the bartered goods; they usually ended up showing and even handing over the silver before the villagers would accept that the band of warriors came in good faith.
For two weeks, they marched since entering Heohlond. The further east they went, the more desolate the land became, and settlements were rare to come across. At one point, a boy herding a flock of goats watched their progression with curiosity, staring at their swords and surcoats. “Matthew,” Brand called out, “go ask the boy if he knows of any villages nearby where we might trade. Or at least any streams close by to fill our water skins.”
Eagerly, Matthew walked up to the boy, who was a few years younger. They exchanged a few words; suddenly, Matthew drew his short sword, making the rest of the group exchange worried looks. Quentin and Nicholas had already run forward when they saw Matthew give the sword to the goatherd, who slashed it around in the air. Laughing, he gave it back to Matthew, who sheathed it and gestured for the highlander boy to follow him.
“He says there’s water straight ahead if we walk for half an hour,” Matthew explained proudly.
“Thank you, Matthew,” Brand told him and turned his attention on the goatherd. “Where is your village, young master? We have silver to buy food with.”
“Back that way.” The boy nodded in the direction they had come. “Ye must have walked too close to the mountains, else ye’d have seen it.”
“Any settlements ahead of us?” Brand enquired. “Perhaps by the water you mentioned.”
“Nay,” the goatherd told them. “There’s Garmagh, of course, but naught but ghosts in that place.”
A start went through Brand. “How can we reach it?”
“Keep going. When ye hit the water, follow it north.”
“Thanks, young master.” Brand inclined his head towards him as a gesture of gratitude. “We have reached the lands of Clan Lachlann. Let us move onwards,” he spoke, directed at his followers. Matthew waved and some of the men tussled the highlander boy’s hair before he returned to his goats.
“Do you expect to find anything in this abandoned village, milord?” asked one of the kingthanes.
“We might at least sleep under a roof,” another suggested.
“My mother lived in Garmagh,” Brand explained quietly, causing his men to fall silent. “I wish to see the place, Sandar, that is all.”
“Of course, milord,” Sandar mumbled. The group continued east without speaking further.
Approaching Garmagh, the goatherd’s tale seemed true; nothing but empty buildings greeted the travellers. Some of them were burned to an extent, while others appeared derelict. The men walked into the town square and glanced around.
“I’m guessing this was ravaged during the war,” Quentin contemplated.
“It must have been bad if nobody’s been tempted to move in since,” a kingthane considered.
“From what I heard, everyone was slaughtered,” Brand remarked.
“Unless that field worked itself, someone did move in,” Alaric interjected, pointing at a patch of land that despite the frozen ground had painstakingly been tilled and prepared for seeding.
“That would be the owner,” Nicholas added, motioning towards a tall woman that stood between two of the buildings.
Everyone’s attention immediately turned towards her; some kept their hands on their weapons, but none drew steel. Brand took a step forward, gesturing for his men to remain calm. “Gods’ peace,” he called out.
“Not much peace today,” the woman replied curtly. She looked to be in her early thirties with the dark hair and pale skin typical of highlanders. In her hand, she held a bucket containing milk, which she sat down on the ground. “What do you lot want?” Her other hand rested casually on the meat knife in her belt.
“We would spend the night in some of the empty houses if it causes no trouble,” Brand explained. “In truth, we only came this way to satisfy my curiosity.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “What in Hel’s name would make any curious to see this gods-forsaken place?”
“My mother was Deirdre of Lachlann,” Brand explained, “and I believe she lived in this village.”
There was a brief silence as the woman chewed on her lower lip. “Deirdre was my cousin. I reckon that makes us kin.”
“I reckon it does,” Brand confirmed with a vague smile. “I am Adalbrand, son of Arngrim.”
“My name’s Gwen,” she told him. “If ye want to stay, I don’t mind.” She glanced at the nearby building, which was the only one showing signs of habitation. “I got some fish I was going to clean. I don’t know how many mouths they’ll feed,” she considered.
“We have food of our own to share, and we can gather more,” Brand quickly suggested.
“Plenty of more fish in the brook,” Gwen offered. “There’s some fishing nets in the shed over there.”
Brand turned to look over his shoulder, and Geberic nodded several times. “Yes, milord.” He barked various orders, setting the men to task. Brand picked up the milk bucket and followed Gwen into her home.
The remainder of the day was spent searching for food, filling skins and buckets with water, and other pursuits of similar nature. Despite their remote location, the kingthanes insisted on posting several guards to maintain close watch over the whole village.
“Nervous lot,” Gwen remarked. Glaukos had built a fire inside her hut from her dwindling stock of firewood, which she now used to cook her fish.
“They’ve had some bad luck in the past keeping people alive,” Geberic muttered. Along with Brand, he, Glaukos, and Matthew were the only people inside Gwen’s home; the others were scattered outside or in the other buildings.
“They are simply cautious,” Brand corrected his man-at-arms.
His sergeant, meanwhile, stared around the small hut curiously. On the wall hung a sword in its scabbard, big enough to be wielded by two hands. “Is that yours?” he asked.
“It is,” Gwen declared. “It was my father’s, but I stole it one night.”
“What, really?” Matthew asked surprised. He sat on the floor, staring at Gwen.
She nodded. “My father owned most of the land surrounding this village. We lived in the big house that sits to the right of here, the one that is mostly burned down.”
“Why did you steal the sword?”
“Matthew,” Geberic interjected with a stern voice, “mind your place.”
“I don’t mind,” Gwen told them, prodding the fish in the fire. “There was war, and I wanted to be part of it. My father would have none of it, so I stole away in the dead of night, taking his sword with me.”
“That’s incredible,” Matthew declared with an awed voice.
“Hardly. It meant I wasn’t here when the Order soldiers came.” Gwen’s voice grew cold. “I was the only one fighting, and by some cruel twist of fate, everyone else died.”
“I am sorry,” Brand told her with genuine sympathy.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she replied flatly, turning away from the fire to face them. “Food is nearly ready.”
“I’m starving,” Matthew exclaimed. Geberic cuffed him behind the ear.
“Take half and distribute it among those standing guard,” Brand instructed Matthew. “You will get your portion afterwards.”
“Fine,” Matthew grumbled, earning him another slap on the head from Geberic. “Fine, sir,” he corrected himself. He waited as Gwen cut up the fish into smaller bits, taking half of it and going outside.
The others began to eat in silence. “I met your father,” Gwen spoke up, looking at Brand.
“Some twenty years ago. He was still a squire, I think, in service to a knight. They were going to Lochan. I can’t for the life of me remember who the knight was or why they were going there.”
“What was he like?” asked Brand.
“Handsome. I was just a small lass, he looked impressive to me with his big horse and armour,” she revealed. “He and the knight continued to Lochan, but while his master was there, your father came back to stay here in Garmagh until it was time for both of them to leave.”
“What happened afterwards?”
“He declared his intent to return and marry your mother. Nobody said a thing until he was out of earshot, but everyone laughed as soon as he was gone.” Gwen smiled to herself for a brief moment. “Deirdre didn’t, of course. She didn’t say a thing. A year later, he returned, now with golden spurs. They were married by a whiterobe at Lochan soon after, as I remember it.”
“Thank you,” Brand told her earnestly.
“It’s nothing,” she mumbled. “There’s still some fish left.”
Outside, Matthew made a round distributing the cooked food. “Thanks,” Sandar told him, eating it quickly while Matthew continued. Looking around, the kingthane located Alaric and approached him.
“You are not at your post,” the other thane informed him.
“I doubt we’re in danger from anything but ghosts, and my sword won’t do much against them,” Sandar replied calmly. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“Get on with it, then.”
“Are we in the right place?”
Alaric glanced around. “We cover every entrance to the square. I’d say so.”
“No,” Sandar replied irritated, “being here with Lord Adalbrand. This place is so remote, even crows would think it’s a bit much. What are we doing here?”
“Following our lord,” Alaric told him placidly.
“But where to, for what purpose?” Sandar asked with frustration. “If he wants to hide in Heohlond, he doesn’t need seven kingthanes to protect him. In fact, we’re just drawing attention.”
Alaric took a deep breath. “We broke an oath to come here, Sandar.”
“I know that.”
“Only our new oath can remove that stain from our honour.”
“I guess so.”
“If Lord Adalbrand wishes to live out his life in some deserted village in Heohlond, I’ll stay by his side and make sure he gets to do that,” Alaric declared.
“That’s a long time doing nothing,” Sandar objected.
“It is keeping my oath to a man who is worthy of my oath,” Alaric retorted. “Prince Hardmar is a scoundrel and a villain, to put it mildly. If doing nothing is the worst thing that Lord Adalbrand asks of me, I will count myself lucky to have exchanged Hardling for Arnling.”
“Fine,” Sandar relented.
“Get back to your post.”
The men woke the next morning to the rhythmic sound of an axe splitting wood. Those who had slept on the floor in Gwen’s home noticed that their leader was missing. Going outside, they saw the archers and Troy emerge from another building along with some of the kingthanes. A few of the latter, those who had kept last watch, were staring with almost pained expression at Brand wielding an axe, chopping firewood.
“Really, milord, it would be no trouble for us,” one of them offered.
“My kin,” Brand replied between axe strokes. “My duty to repay the hospitality.” Another stroke. “The custom of the highlands.”
“Let our lord do as he wishes,” Alaric told his brethren. A few them shrugged and returned to their sleeping quarters to get properly dressed.
As Brand finished, he saw Gwen staring at him. “I noticed you had little fuel left,” he told her, putting the axe aside to gather up a bundle of logs.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” she told him, picking up a handful of firewood herself.
“You were an excellent host,” Brand smiled faintly. “You deserve good guests.”
“I didn’t do much,” she protested as they walked inside and stacked the firewood by her fireplace.
“Never underestimate small kindnesses,” he remarked, returning outside. His men were chewing on what remained of last night’s supper turned into breakfast. “Can you tell us the route to Lochan?”
“Follow the stream north,” Gwen advised. “You’ll reach a bridge and the road that goes east to Lochan.”
“My thanks.” Outside, Brand’s men gathered to depart. “Farewell, Gwen of Lachlann.”
“Fare you well, cousin.”
An hour north of Garmagh, they reached the aforementioned bridge. Crossing the stream, they set on the path towards Lochan, seat of Clan Lachlann. Keeping to the dirt road, they began to encounter more traffic, mostly farmers and peddlers. Seeing a small company of armed men, other travellers were rarely inclined to strike up conversation, but Brand’s men made up for that by conversing freely with each other. It was a pleasant day, and all had slept well, undisturbed by the ghosts of Garmagh.
As the shadows grew long, Lochan began to rise in the horizon. Even for the highlands, it was small, a town rather than a city. It had wooden palisades for walls instead of stone and no castle or keep; there was only a long hall in the centre, rising above the huts and houses surrounding it. Nearby lay the small lake for which the town was named.
The band increased their pace, hurrying to reach the settlement before nightfall. As they approached the gate, a guard called out to them. “Halt a moment! Who are ye?”
“We are but travellers,” Alaric replied brusquely. “Are we forbidden entrance?”
“Nay, but most travellers journey with goods or wares to trade. Ye come only with swords, making me think that’s yer only trade.”
Brand took a step forward. “I am Adalbrand, son of Deirdre of Lachlann,” he spoke in a loud voice. “I seek the hospitality of my kindred.”
The guard could be seen briefly consulting with his companion. “Very well,” he finally spoke, “but we’re peaceful folk. Any of ye break our peace, kinship won’t see you safe.”
“Consider us warned.” Brand inclined his head in recognition and motioned for his men to follow him.
Entering the town, they drew stares from all sides. Mothers pulled their children aside and men sent them lingering glances, filled with suspicion. Few of them bore swords or weapons, though, and Brand’s retinue seemed untroubled by the local sentiments. As for Brand himself, he set a brisk pace and kept his eyes on the hall at the end of the main road.
Although fashioned from wood and not stone, the building left no doubt that it was the seat of a nobleman and his family. Its front door was large enough to be called a gate and stood open; servants and people tending to affairs could be seen entering and leaving in steady numbers. All quickly moved aside as Brand walked up the few steps, accompanied by eleven stern warriors, a boy glancing around, and one bard clutching a lute.
“Inform your master that Adalbrand of House Arnling seeks an audience,” Brand told a servant, who swallowed and hurried away.
“No guards,” Glaukos muttered. “Trusting people.”
“Just wait until they meet you,” Geberic remarked.
After a short while, a servant dressed in finer clothes appeared. “Milord,” he addressed Brand, “I am the steward of this house. My master bids you welcome into the hall. He commands that you only bring two of your attendants with you.”
“Only two?” Alaric bristled.
Brand raised a hand to silence his thane, looking over his shoulder. “Glaukos, Alaric, with me. Geberic, keep them out of trouble.” He turned towards the steward. “Lead the way, good master.”
Moving from the parlour down corridors, they soon entered the main hall itself. It was elongated in shape and had a long table in its middle with benches around. At both ends were hearths, though neither were lit at the moment; the table end farthest from the main entrance had high-backed chairs rather than benches. The hall was not empty; apart from a few servants, several armed men stood scattered throughout the room, and more continued to arrive. By the chairs stood a man in his late fifties, slender and well dressed. “This is Lord Ciarán, the ri tuaithe of our people,” the steward presented him.
“Welcome to my hall,” Ciarán spoke. “If you come in peace, you shall know peace in the lands of Lachlann.”
Brand gave a bow. “You have my gratitude, Lord Ciarán. I am Adalbrand of House Arnling, and I have come seeking your hospitality.”
“Your name is known to us, even in this part of the high lands,” the lord revealed. “Yet it is your mother’s name you have come to invoke, I would assume.”
“It is, my lord.” Brand nodded in acknowledgement. “My mother was Deirdre of Lachlann, born in this very hall if memory serves me right.”
“It does.” Ciarán nodded himself. “Her first years were spent here until she followed her father to your family’s lands to the west. While she bore no direct relation to me, she was of this túath. None will deny this.”
“I am glad, my lord.” Brand hesitated. “I find myself in need of aid, and so I turn to bonds of blood.”
“Given the stories we have heard, I can only imagine what has driven you to the edge of the Seven Realms,” Ciarán remarked. “I would tell you to seek your family’s lands within our túath, but you will find little help there, alas.”
“Indeed, my lord,” Brand assented.
Ciarán took a deep breath. “Let it not be said that Lachlann turns away its own. You shall have a place to sleep under my roof tonight, Adalbrand of House Arnling, as shall your men.”
Brand gave a deep bow. “My deepest gratitude, my lord.”
The lord of the clan waved his hand dismissively. “No gratitude is needed to fulfil the obligations of kinship. You and your followers may seek out rest, and tomorrow you can tell the tale that brought the Dragonheart to Lochan.”
Brand gave another bow and retired with his protectors; the nobleman and his warriors watched them leave, every step of the way.