People of the Stone
Underneath the keep in Cragstan, countless hours had been spent digging into the rock below, allowing for a crypt to be hollowed out. Here rested the jarls of Theodstan and their kin. As space was scarce, all couples shared a sarcophagus, and small children rested with their parents. At first, it was merely one chamber, meaning that closest to the entrance lay men and women from before Theodstan was even a jarldom, going back more than a thousand years. Additional chambers had been opened up over time; in the deepest of these sat Theodoric.
All of the stone coffins were similarly made, carved in plain form, while the lids were engraved with the names of those inside. To one side, his parents rested together. Next to them was an empty plot, waiting for the day Theodoric would join them. On the opposing side, sleeping inside her stone prison, lay Theodwyn next to her husband. The latter had been dead for many years, and a few weeks earlier, Theodoric had brought his sister that the two at last could be reunited.
“Isenhart sent a messenger three days ago,” Theodoric explained into the empty air. “He felt bold enough after his latest victory to demand I submit to him. I thought about playing for time,” the jarl admitted. “The old Theodoric would have bought as many days as possible, delaying any answer. This Theodoric,” he continued, “spent the shortest amount of time possible telling the messenger to go straight to Hel, preferably with Isenhart in tow.”
He smiled. “I could hear your voice as I said it. It was phrased exactly how you would have done it.” He sat on the floor, leaning up against the stone that embraced his sister. “I imagine they will not care. Middanhal is what matters. I have not raised my banners either, so it should be obvious I pose no threat. Though part of me would relish watching Isenhart run his thick head against the walls of Cragstan. I would consider our home the strongest castle in all of Adalrik.”
He paused. “Are you disappointed in me, Sister? Were you expecting that I would call my troops to assemble and storm Middanhal until I could slaughter each man involved in your death?” His lips twisted upwards for a moment. “You probably would have expected nothing less. But it is complicated,” he claimed. “I suspect many could have given you the push to send you to your death. A thane to that spiteful little brat, most likely, but which one? What if he had another do it, like one of the Hawks? What if it was someone else entirely, someone I wronged years ago who finally decided to strike back?”
Theodoric sighed, letting his head rest against the cool stone behind him. “If it truly was the doing of Hardmar, he is beyond my reach. His thanes are scattered. Some at least are dead by my hand, but I know not if any of them were guilty. I would gladly punish your killer, Theodwyn, whoever he might be, wherever he might be, if only I knew.” He cleared his throat. “I have made such questionable decisions,” he admitted. “Konstans played me like a lute. While I was blinded by grief, he fooled me. I am confident he had the prince slain, but I can only reveal this by admitting that I was also present that fateful night. If I lift a finger to accuse him, the remaining fingers point the blame at me.”
“All my mistakes have become ghosts to haunt me. I convened the Adalthing last year, thinking to set myself up as a ruler, only to hand the realm to Konstans and the Hardlings on a platter.” He breathed in slowly and exhaled again. “I feel adrift. I could not tell you who I would rather see defeated in this war, Isenhart or Valerian. I miss your advice, however infuriating it could be to have your overbearing voice in my ear. I would trade every coin in Theodstan just to have you infuriate me one more time.” The jarl fell silent; no further words followed, only another sigh.
Theodoric remained in the crypt for a while; in the darkness, it was hard to tell how much time passed when his reverie was finally disturbed. “Milord?”
“What is it, Holwyn,” he enquired with a weary voice.
“Something you need to know,” she began hesitantly. “There’s an army not far from the Crag.”
Theodoric’s head turned sharply to look at her. “Under whose banner?”
“That’s what mystifies us, milord. They don’t seem to be marching under any.”
“A peasant army? No, that does not make sense,” Theodoric considered. “Those lazy bastards have nothing to revolt about. Send scouts to find out what they want,” he commanded, standing up, “and have every able-bodied man within ten miles assembled and outfitted for war.”
“Your steward has already seen to both,” Holwyn told him reassuringly. “He merely sent me to inform you.”
“Very well,” Theodoric granted. “Summon Richard and Brogan. I will meet them in the hall.”
Richard, margrave of Alwood and vassal of Theodstan, had gone to Cragstan since the armies of Isarn had raised the siege at Grenwold. With the Order leaderless and Vale’s forces in disarray, there had been none to give him new orders, and the knight was not in any hurry to return to Middanhal; instead, he followed the example of his liege, keeping out of the conflict for now. After Theodwyn had been buried, Richard had stayed in the city; Alwood was among the smallest fiefs in Adalrik and held nothing of interest to its lord beyond letting him buy new horses when needed.
Because of this, he was available to counsel Theodoric, arriving to find the jarl already there with the captain of his thanes. “How was this not discovered earlier?” Theodoric demanded to know.
“We were keeping watch to the west, in case Isarn or Vale would send any forces against us,” Brogan explained defensively. “How could any know that an army of highlanders would suddenly appear?”
“Certainly we were caught unaware,” the jarl spoke with gritted teeth. “Do we know of any tension between King Brión and the lord protector? Does he have cause to join Isarn upon an assault against Middanhal?” he asked Holwyn.
“No, milord. The rí ruirech seems on good terms with Jarl Vale. It is possible he is responding to a call to arms from the lord protector.”
“That would make sense,” Richard interjected. “Athelstan gives the Hawks a beating, so Valerian calls in new allies.”
“I suppose,” Theodoric granted, though his voice was tinged with doubt. “If this army is marching against Isarn, it would have been polite for King Brión to at least give me warning before he marches through my lands.”
“We will find out soon enough,” Richard spoke placidly. “Once the scouts return.”
“One thing speaks against your interpretation,” Brogan interceded. “If this army belongs to King Brión, regardless of whether he comes as friend or foe, why is not being led by the banner of Clan Cameron?”
Richard frowned. “Fair point.”
“Milord,” another man called out as he burst into the hall; it was Theodoric’s steward. “Your scouts return with a message,” he related.
“So soon? I thought this army was miles away,” the jarl frowned.
“Apparently, your outriders met a messenger from the army not far from Cragstan. With your permission, milord, I will send him in. We need not fear his intentions, I believe,” the steward explained with something resembling a smile.
His frown deepening, Theodoric nodded nonetheless. “Very well, I look forward to some kind of explanation.”
The steward disappeared, and moments later, Geberic strode into the hall. Faces lit up in surprise or excitement upon seeing the former thane of Theodstan. “Geberic, you old dog!” Brogan greeted him, hurrying forward to clasp his hand.
“Geberic,” Richard exclaimed brusquely, “of all the bastards in the world, your name is far down the list of who I expected to come through that door.”
“Good to see you as well,” the man-at-arms grinned before giving a bow before Theodoric. “Milord.”
“Geberic, it has been a while. I am pleased to see you unharmed.”
“Not as pleased as I am to be unharmed,” came the swift reply, accompanied by a wry smile.
“Last I saw you was in the Citadel, keeping watch of Lord Adalbrand’s sister. I suspect his escape, the arrival of a highlander army, and your presence are connected,” the jarl surmised.
“Ever clever, milord,” Geberic acknowledged. “Supported by the clans, Lord Adalbrand has come to right the wrongs done to him.”
“He is welcome to do so,” Theodoric granted, “as long as it is done elsewhere. I have no interest in seeing Theodstan turned into a battlefield.”
“I am no envoy, milord,” Geberic clarified, “merely a messenger. Lord Adalbrand requests an audience with your lordship. He is willing to go to Cragstan, should your lordship promise free passage.”
The jarl glanced at the men assembled. “I promise Lord Adalbrand free passage in and out of Cragstan, in the presence of these honourable men.”
“Excellent.” Geberic gave a small bow with a satisfied expression. “I shall return immediately and inform my lord.”
Hours later, Brand rode into Cragstan; he was accompanied by Geberic, Glaukos, and his seven kingthanes, riding on every horse their small army currently possessed. Dismounting in the courtyard of the keep, the steward welcomed them and led them into the hall. As before, Theodoric stood waiting with Richard and Brogan; a number of his thanes were also present.
“Jarl Theodoric,” Brand greeted him courteously.
“Lord Adalbrand.” The jarl gave a curt nod.
“Brand, as I live and breathe!” Richard shouted. He had been conversing with some of the thanes but now pushed his way forward, grabbing Brand’s hand to shake it vigorously while slapping his back.
“Richard. I am pleased to see you as well,” Brand smiled.
“When I heard what those slack-jawed villains in Middanhal wanted to do…” Richard growled without finishing his sentence.
“There will be time later, Richard, where you might conscript our guest to indulge your fantasies,” Theodoric told him a tad sharply. “For now, we have matters that warrant discussion.”
“We do, my lord jarl,” Brand agreed.
“I assume you have come to request passage through my lands?” Theodoric posited.
“That would be a start,” Brand considered. “In truth, I have come to request that you join me.”
Eyes exchanged glances across the hall. “If the prospect of being a rebel and having my head severed from my neck intrigued me,” the jarl responded overbearingly, “I would have joined forces with Isarn long ago.”
“You seem doubtful of my chances,” Brand remarked neutrally.
“I suppose during negotiations, I should wrap my words in courtesy. As it is, I have grown weary of the courtesy of courtiers. Meaning is veiled in layers, and insults have their barbs underneath silk. These days, I find that plain truth suffices for my needs.”
“Then truth you shall hear. We have both suffered injustice at the hands of Jarl Vale and his brother,” Brand declared. Many of the others present, whether his or Theodoric’s thanes, murmured in agreement. “We may be rid of Prince Hardmar, but the real tyrants remain in power in Middanhal. We have fought together in the past, Jarl Theodstan. You have followed my campaigns in Adalrik and Hæthiod. Do you truly doubt I can defeat these churls on the battlefield?”
“I am sure you can score victory after victory while you have soldiers at your disposal. But with each battle, victorious or not, your numbers will be whittled down,” Theodoric argued.
“I intend for my first victory to be so decisive, a second will not be necessary,” Brand retorted.
“Hah!” Richard exclaimed, earning a stern gaze from his liege.
“Let us assume that is possible. You will still be faced with assaulting the impenetrable walls of Middanhal, and unlike last time, I imagine they will be waiting for you,” the jarl remarked dryly. “Besieging the city is impossible, storming the walls is hardly better, and all the while, you will have a hostile army in the shape of Isarn nipping at your heels.”
“Another thing that can be solved. Together, we will unite the entire North against Jarl Vale and have the forces to assault Middanhal.”
“Trusting Isenhart is no better than trusting Valerian, or his brother for that matter,” Theodoric claimed. “Isenhart has already proven he will break any law, any oath, to get what he wants.”
“He will not be constrained by law or honour,” Brand replied patiently, “but by equal strength. He should know how he will fare if he dares to fight me.”
“So confident in your fortunes,” Theodoric spoke sardonically, “considering a month ago, your head was on the executioner’s block.”
“Exactly. Here I stand, at the head of an army. This is only the beginning.”
“It may be too late to build this alliance you seek,” Theodoric confessed. “Some days ago, a messenger arrived from his camp, demanding that I swear him fealty and join the war,” Theodoric related. “I rejected his demands. Knowing Isenhart’s temper, he will not take that well.”
“I grant you that, but it proves that Jarl Isarn is aware we should stand together against our common foe.”
“What I question is what we stand to gain,” Brogan suddenly interjected. Heads turned to look at the captain of Theodstan’s thanes. “Right now, enemy fights enemy while we remain untouched. I see no problem in letting these jarls tear each other to pieces! Why should the men of Theodstan die for your vengeance?”
“An excellent question,” Theodoric assented.
“Last year, you rode day and night to warn the Order army at Lake Myr,” Brand reminded the jarl. “You marched alongside me across the Weolcans because the realm was under threat, and you felt it your duty to help.”
“And I only succeeded in making things worse,” Theodoric declared. “Besides, I did those things to stop Isenhart. The very man you would now ally with.”
“I admit, the situation grows ever strange,” Brand confessed. “Let me ask you this. What do you want? Are you content sitting in this keep, watching lesser men tear Adalrik to pieces?”
“Lesser men,” the jarl scoffed. “I am no better man than Valerian or Konstans, than Isenhart or Athelstan. I used to think so, but that was merely my vanity lying to me. The only difference between them and me is that I am not embroiled in all this death and endless warfare. If I join you, even that difference will be erased.”
“Theodoric,” Richard protested. “You cannot compare yourself or any man here to those dastardly jarls! They fight only to keep their bony grip on power! We, at least, have nobler motives.”
“Nobler motives, but the same outcome. Men die, Richard, and never those who instigated all of this,” Theodoric spoke with a resigned voice.
Brogan nodded vigorously. “Let Isarn and Vale bleed each other dry if they must. Theodstan has no stake in this.”
“That could take years,” Brand argued, a tad impatiently. “Imagine the damage caused if North and South remain divided this way. No salt from Hæthiod would reach your jarldom. You cannot sell your wool in Middanhal. All the goods that make life bearable flows through the capital. Your people will not thank you for this.”
“My people are grateful for your concern,” Theodoric remarked sharply. He took a deep breath. “What you ask is no small thing. Isarn is already watching me with doubtful eyes. I could end up with two enemies, both of them stronger than me.”
“You are not alone. You have the highlanders at your back and the best commander in the Seven Realms,” Brand stated.
“The man speaks the truth,” Richard interceded. “I am not half-bad leading assaults either, if I say so myself.”
“These highlanders. They march under no banner. King Brión did not send them, nor did any of the clans,” Theodoric surmised.
“True. They are here of their own accord. They fight not because they must, but because they are willing.”
“Admirable, but also dangerous. It may not take much for some of them to reconsider, and should just a few decide to leave, they may draw the remainder with them,” the jarl considered.
“Once they have their first taste of victory, none of them are leaving,” Brand claimed.
Theodoric took a deep breath. “I need to consider this matter further. I will not give you any answer tonight.”
“Of course, my lord jarl,” Brand accepted.
“It is late. You may share my table tonight, and we have rooms for all your men. Tomorrow, we may discuss this matter again,” Theodoric offered.
“Most kind, my lord jarl.” Brand gave a bow.
“Tonight, you experience the hospitality of Theodstan.” The jarl made a gesture towards his steward, who nodded in understanding and retreated. “I hope you like mutton. It is what we have every night.”
The next morning, Theodoric stood upon the walls of his keep. He had the city of Cragstan spread out before his gaze; thanks to its small size and elevated position, he could easily see his jarldom beyond. Rolling hills with pastures, occasionally broken by cliffs and rocks, met his eyes. Theodstan was stone land; while the region was large, it was inhabited by few. They were the people of the stone, and thus the jarldom was named. Whether few or many, they were Theodoric’s people; he was their ruler, and thus he was named.
Brand approached him cautiously on the parapet. “Good morrow, my lord jarl.”
“If it is good, only time can tell. I have pondered your request.”
“I am eager to hear more.”
Theodoric inhaled slowly and exhaled. “I am hesitant to commit myself to any course of action. It makes no difference to me whether Vale or Isarn rules. Throwing my soldiers into this fight to dethrone Vale, only to have Isarn take his place – it seems pointless to me.”
“What if Jarl Isarn was not to replace Jarl Vale?” Brand asked. “What if you committed to a course of action that elevated you in their place?”
Theodoric sent him a sharp look. “You mean to make me lord protector in Valerian’s stead? No, of course not.” The jarl’s eyes narrowed in thought. “You mean to make me dragonlord. Your dragonlord.”
“I do. You are fit for the task, and it is a just reward for standing by me in this hour.”
Theodoric let out a deep breath. “That presupposes not only victory, but that Isenhart will agree to these terms.”
“He need not be aware of what we plan once Middanhal is ours. For now, we unite with him against a common enemy,” Brand explained.
Theodoric turned away, looking over the parapet. “It is tempting to sit back and watch Isarn and Vale tear each other apart. They are too close in strength that either side can gain victory anytime soon.”
Brand joined him to stand by his side. “Yet at one point, one of them will, and he shall look upon you unfavourably.”
“I think before it comes that far, one or the other will be sufficiently desperate to force me to choose sides,” Theodoric continued his deliberations. “I suppose you and your army give me the best bargaining position.”
“Do I understand you correctly, my lord jarl? Are you prepared to join the war?”
Theodoric gave a slow nod. “I am, on very specific conditions that must be met. I will send an envoy to Isenhart and entreat him to enter an alliance with us. If he accepts that we fight together, I will raise my levies and march alongside you. Should he refuse,” Theodoric warned, “regardless of what reason, I will withdraw to Cragstan and wait this war out. I am not going to throw my men against the walls of Middanhal solely for your vengeance or ambition.”
”I would not expect such a thing either.”
“Along that vein, if you lose your highlander army, I will also retire to Cragstan,” Theodoric specified.
“I do not imagine that happening.”
“I imagine you do not, which also concerns me and leads me to another condition. My army is mine to command. While I acknowledge your gift as a captain, you should not expect me to simply fall to heel,” Theodoric specified. “If I disagree with your strategy or tactics – if I feel it endangers my army unnecessarily – that will be another reason for me to march back to Cragstan.”
“That is only reasonable,” Brand smiled. “I agree to your terms.”
“Very well. I will send an emissary immediately to Isenhart.”
Brand stretched out his hand towards Theodoric. “And then, we go to war.”
“Yes,” the jarl agreed, clasping the outstretched arm. “To war.”