Theodoric departed a few days after Konstans had done so. As the dragonlord had predicted, time was suddenly pressing the jarl; the Adalthing was about three weeks away, and Theodoric had a vote to win that would require nearly all the southern landgraves swayed to his side. It was time for favours to be returned or granted, promises made or kept, and vows exchanged or renewed.
Brand and his men stayed behind. While the landfrid offered protection for any member of the Adalthing for two weeks before solstice, he was not going to arrive early, tempting fate or repeating his previous experience when travelling to the assembly. With Theodoric’s permission, Brand was delaying his departure as long as possible.
Because of this, the young captain was still at Cragstan when Geberic entered his room after knocking. “This is going to sound strange no matter what,” the greybeard admitted, scratching his neck.
“What is it?”
“That spy from Hæthiod is here to see you.”
“Godfrey, he calls himself. Given his nature, probably one out of many names.” Geberic scowled at the mention of such villainous behaviour.
Various expressions flowed across Brand’s face. “Send him in.”
Godfrey entered immediately before Geberic could even fetch him. “Well met,” he smiled. Geberic’s scowl only deepened.
“Leave us,” Brand commanded.
“Milord,” came the objection.
With a final grumble and growl against Godfrey, Geberic departed. The wanderer stepped further inside to sit down on the bed. “Things are quite a mess, I hear.”
Brand sank into a chair. “I am not sure if you know the full story, but matters can only be worse than you imagine.”
“I believe I know everything. Septimus told me of your escape from Middanhal, and – other sources have informed me of your deal with Lord Konstans.”
Brand sent him a disbelieving look. “How could you possibly know? And so soon?”
Godfrey gave an overbearing smile. “If you think a conversation between the dragonlord and a jarl can be kept secret, you have much to learn.”
“I do,” Brand admitted. “Part of me wants to burst into the Adalthing and demand each of those snivelling cowards to beg my forgiveness, or I will do my utmost to see them all hang. Unfortunately,” he continued, “I must instead remain silent while Jarl Theodoric speaks on my behalf, begging them to forgive me for crimes I never committed.”
“At least you have learned to listen to the second of those two voices,” Godfrey encouraged him.
“Not an easy feat.” Brand gave him a closer look. “I have a memory vague in my mind, as if it happened in earliest childhood and not a few months ago. Tell me, I ask you ardently, what did I see below the Temple?”
Godfrey gazed back tight-lipped. “Matters we should not speak of.”
“I dream of a tree,” Brand explained. “When I wake up, there is a moment where I think I see it. Ash tree, with branches that move though no wind sways them.”
Godfrey let out a long sigh. “Septimus was wrong to inflict this upon you. Suffice to say, the Temple harbours a secret. It is my task above all to safeguard it. Whether you want to or not, you have been recruited for the same purpose.” He motioned towards the sword of sea-steel that still hung by Brand’s side. “That was not lent to you lightly.”
Brand glanced downwards surprised, as if only noticing the weapon now. “I will be honest. I have not had occasion to use it once.”
“Perhaps that makes you worthy of it after all,” Godfrey considered. “When I heard that Septimus had both shown you the antechamber and lent you that blade, I am not sure what made me angrier.”
Brand stared at him intently. “I thought at first that you served the Highfather. Now I suspect it is reverse.”
“There is hope for you yet,” Godfrey remarked dryly. He took a deep breath. “I came here for a specific reason. The siege of Lakon has been lifted.”
“How so?” asked Brand sharply.
“A relief force of outlanders arrived from the Reach. Sir William withdrew the Order forces along with the dalemen.”
“They did not lose a battle?”
Brand let out a small sigh of relief. “At least the army is intact.”
“I have to return to the Reach,” Godfrey told him. “Matters are complicated beyond explanation, but I believe we have a chance to strike against the outlanders and their Godking.”
“Why do you tell me this?”
“You are smart enough to know.”
Brand glanced at the empty wall. “You want me to return to Hæthiod. To fight the outlanders.”
“There are plenty of men in this world who can swing a sword. I need you to command the fight.”
“Am I to risk my life for men who would see the executioner’s axe on my neck?”
“Yes,” Godfrey told him sternly. “No different than every soldier in that army, risking his life to protect all the peoples of the Realms. When he lies dying on the battlefield, do you think his name is known by any of them?” His voice grew fierce. “Do you think he will be remembered? What makes you so special compared to every man that serves under you?”
Brand sat silent. “Every answer I come up with seems like folly,” he finally admitted.
Godfrey exhaled deeply. “I cannot force you. In the end, the choice is yours. But you were born for this, Adalbrand.” He stared directly at the young captain. “I believe this whole-heartedly.”
His companion returned the gaze. “Call me Brand.” He gave a weak smile. “I have grown so used to it, being called Adalbrand makes my hair bristle.”
Godfrey smiled back. “Very well.” He paused for a moment. “The choice is yours. Unless you object, I will travel with you back to Middanhal. While I need to hasten south soon, I will stay in the city until the Adalthing has convened.”
“Of course,” Brand nodded. “We leave in a few days, once the landfrid has begun.”
As decided, some fifty people departed Cragstan barely two weeks before solstice and the gathering of the Adalthing; with a leisurely pace, they would arrive shortly before the assembly. For the most part, the company suffered from a subdued mood; the exception to this were the whiterobes, whose cheer seemed indestructible.
“One thing that bothers me,” one priest mentioned, “is the colour of our robes. It is the least practical colour for doing anything, especially fighting!”
“True point,” someone else conceded. “I spent half a day after the battle trying to get rid of these blood stains. Those Isarn boys may not fight well, but damn me to Hel if they don’t bleed well!” Raucous laughter followed.
“Maybe Hamaring prefers it this way,” Caradoc mused. “A priest whose robe is always clean is a priest who never does an honest day’s work,” he put forth.
“What you’re saying is that the best sacrifice you can give Hamaring are the stains on your robe,” another brother argued.
“There is some truth in that,” Caradoc acknowledged.
“That must be why they call you Caradoc Dirtsark behind your back,” came the witty retort.
“Listen to this court jester!” Caradoc growled. “The stitches on his bear are barely done,” he murmured, referring to the emblem upon the whiterobe’s chest, “and already this cub is challenging his elders!”
“If we don’t put our strength to the test, do we truly possess it?” came the ponderous retort.
“True,” Caradoc conceded. “Tonight, I’ll test my hammer against your face.” His words were met with good-natured laughter.
The company moved on foot; while Theodoric had offered to lend Brand some horses, the latter had declined, resolving that he would walk same as his warriors. For the most part, his thanes formed a circle around Brand, walking at the head of the column; as they drew close to Middanhal, Brand dismissed them from his presence and bade Godfrey join him instead.
“What is on your mind?” asked Godfrey as he caught up to Brand.
Brand stared at the white walls and towers in the far distance. “If I am to commit myself to the campaign in Hæthiod, I want to understand why. This sword by my side, for instance.” He touched the hilt hanging by his waist. “You know its origin. You know what it was meant to protect. I would not be surprised if you even knew who placed it there, ages ago.”
“You may be right about all those things. Or maybe I am just a traveller, grown a bit touched from solitude,” Godfrey suggested with half a smile.
Brand gestured towards Middanhal ahead. “What lies underneath the Temple? What are we all risking our lives to defend?”
Godfrey took a deep breath. “I cannot say, for I have not the words. How would you explain moonlight to a blind man?”
“Is that what we all are? Blind men, stumbling around in the dark?”
Godfrey laughed briefly. “That is often how I feel.” He grew serious once more. “There is a Song being sung, Brand, and if it were to stop, the consequences would be disastrous. That is the best way I can describe it.”
Brand waited a while before answering. “Very well. I will let that satisfy me. There is something else,” he continued. “You strike me as a man capable of keeping a secret.”
“That is a fair assessment,” Godfrey admitted with a wry expression.
“I cannot tell any of my men. Or Gwen,” Brand added with a faint smile. “I would simply be putting the burden on them, not to mention undermine their confidence in me.”
“What troubles you?”
Brand exhaled deeply. “I have made so many mistakes. I fled this city earlier this year, and now I am marching back because I have run out of options.”
“I have known other people in worse straits than you, my friend.”
“But this is my own doing,” Brand continued. “The king of Heohlond warned me, and I was too arrogant to listen.”
“You met with King Brión?”
“I did. Do you know him as well?”
“Only by name. He is a clever man, I am told,” Godfrey related.
“He is,” Brand admitted. “He knew I was blinded by pride. I paid him no heed when I should have tried to make him my ally, and in return, he took my army from me with but a word.”
“I did the same with Jarl Isarn,” Brand confessed. “When I guessed he came to attack our camp, my only thought was how to punish him for it. I drove him into retreat. If I had made it plain I knew of his intent, he would not have attacked. We would have come to terms rather than fighting.”
“Or perhaps not. Jarl Isenhart is a tempestuous man, Brand.”
“As if this was not bad enough, I all but forced Jarl Theodoric to abandon my cause as well, having lost all other allies.” Brand gave a prolonged sigh. “My fate rests in the hands of others, because my own have let everything slip.”
“You have made one clever move,” his companion pointed out.
“You have made an ally of me.” Godfrey let his smile linger as they continued on their march.
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