Next morning, Brand went to the Citadel, accompanied by his sister and a few protectors. Not only the guards stared; so did all the nobility with their retinue, arriving to participate in the Adalthing as well. Brand paid them no heed but strode inside and located Theodoric’s quarters. The jarl greeted them with a strained smile. “I have done my best,” he declared. Holwyn was present as well, standing withdrawn. She exchanged looks with Arndis, but neither spoke.
“What are my chances?” asked Brand bluntly.
“You have mine and Valerian’s voices,” Theodoric considered. “Many of the southern landgraves will follow him out of habit. I have spoken to everyone that I thought might be doubtful or susceptible to Ingmond’s influence.”
“He is actively working against me?”
“He will not rest until you are dead, I imagine. Fortunately,” Theodoric continued, “he does not have nearly the pull that Valerian does. I am hoping that combined with my efforts, enough will have joined our side.”
Brand gave a nod. “Very well. Let us to it.”
They began walking towards the chamber of the Adalthing. “Brand,” Arndis spoke as she put her arm in his, “what will you do if your sentence is not lifted?”
“I will have to leave Adalrik.” Brand exhaled slowly. “I think I know what lies ahead of me, but the decision is not easy.”
“Are you sure Lord Konstans will honour his word? What if this was a trap to lure you into his grasp?” asked Arndis worried.
“He signed a written promise and sealed it. It is as good as law,” Brand reassured her. “It is too late to alter course regardless. My only concern in this moment is for you, and what will happen if I am made an outlaw once more.”
“You need not worry. I have coin hidden away and friends to aid me,” Arndis reassured him. “I can take care of myself.”
“I am glad that is the case for at least one of us. I will see you after the assembly,” he added as they had to part ways; Arndis went to the balcony reserved for spectators, while Brand followed Theodoric into the hall itself.
Slowly, the chamber filled with people. Noblemen and their attendants, the priestess of Disfara for the ritual, and finally Quill. When the latter saw Brand, he lit up in a smile, but he kept some distance between them and his hands inside his sleeves. “I am relieved you are unharmed,” the law keeper related.
“Not as much as I am,” Brand jested. “I am pleased to see you back in your rightful place. I was told of what happened.”
“Just some temporary discomfort,” Quill claimed, coughing slightly. “No matter what happens today, Brand, I am glad I got to see you again.”
“As am I.”
As the last to appear, Prince Inghard entered to sit upon the throne; Konstans walked right behind him and took up position by his side. Quill, meanwhile, moved to stand near the middle of the hall and begin the ceremony to open the Adalthing.
Once the rites had been observed, the dragonlord stepped forward to speak. “Once again, we meet to discuss matters of the realm and seek peaceful resolution to issues that could otherwise lead to strife. This chamber is the greatest safeguard to the stability and protection of Adalrik,” he declared, “and a symbol of our unity.”
“Hear, hear!” Many of the noblemen, especially from the southern part, let their agreement be known.
“In that spirit, I am honoured to announce the betrothal between my son, Konstantine of Vale, and the lady Gunhild of House Hardling.” Further applause filled the hall.
“And so the noose is tightened,” Theodoric muttered under his breath.
“We begin with a matter debated at the last Adalthing,” Konstans continued. “Adalbrand of House Arnling was deemed guilty of high treason and condemned to death. You all know what happened, so I see no reason to dwell on it.” A few in the crowd dared to smile at this. “The jarl of Theodstan has come before this assembly to request clemency on behalf of the condemned. I will let the jarl speak.”
Theodoric stepped forward from the cluster of his margraves. “Thank you, Lord Konstans. It is my firm belief that Lord Adalbrand does not deserve death nor exile. Last year, I crossed the Weolcan Mountains by his side. I fought with him at the battle of Bradon. After this, he went to fight the outlanders on behalf of the Order, driving them from Tothmor and Polisals. My lords, do we reward such service with death? How can we ask our knights to fight for us and for Adalmearc?”
Theodoric let his gaze move over the crowd. “Not only our realm, but all the Seven Realms depend on the Order for peace and protection. Lord Adalbrand is the greatest commander to emerge in our lifetime, and we have need of knights like him more than ever! Enemies threaten from beyond and within, and we throw our greatest weapon away? History will judge us, my lords, and judge us poorly.” Finished, he turned to give a bow to the prince and stepped back.
“I will speak!” demanded Ingmond. The jarl had been alternating his stare between Brand and Theodoric during the latter’s speech.
“Of course,” Konstans granted, gesturing towards the space in the middle containing the statue of Disfara.
“This oath breaker has been stripped of rank,” Ingmond spoke venomously. “His sword has been broken. Only the intervention of other despicable oath breakers saved him from the scaffold. All of Middanhal saw this traitor escape his just punishment, and we are to reward this? We are to show every knight in service to the Order that oath breakers can be forgiven, and adherence to the Codex is merely a jest?” the jarl sneered. “There is a doom, not upon this disgraced knight but upon this realm,” he claimed with a loud voice. “Its name is divine vengeance, and it hangs over our heads until we rectify this injustice! Only the traitor’s blood may wash it away.”
Theodoric stepped forward quickly. “I grant you that blood is of importance. Lord Adalbrand shares the same ancestor as the man we would elevate to the highest seat in Adalmearc.” He glanced at the young Inghard. “Executing the dragonborn, spilling the blood of Sigvard in a public square undermines the very fabric of our realm.”
“To Hel with Sigvard’s blood!” yelled Ingmond, receiving shocked and outraged looks from most others.
“Enough,” Konstans declared. “You have both been allowed to speak. We should continue with the counting,” he proclaimed, looking at Quill.
“I should like to speak.” Brand stepped forward, causing murmur among the crowd.
“By all means,” Konstans assented with a superior smile. “I am eager to hear.”
“My lords,” Brand spoke in a clear voice. “My prince,” he continued, inclining his head towards Inghard. “My friends,” he added, glancing at Quill and towards the balcony at his sister and those few of his men present. “I have committed errors of judgement in the past. I will not deny it. But it is the future, not the past, that brings me before you today. The outlanders have raised the siege of Lakon, as I assume most of you know. They are not petty raiders or simply organised brigands. They are an army, bent on conquest. Less than half a year ago, all of Hæthiod was under their control. We drove them back, but now they have returned.”
Brand paused, letting his words sink in. “Do not presume that they will settle for Hæthiod. The armies that the Order faces are too numerous. Korndale will be next, or Ingmond.” He looked at the jarl, who stared back fiercely. “After Ingmond, all of southern Adalrik lies open. One day, my lords, they will stand before the gates of Middanhal.” He took a deep breath and walked up to the statue of Disfara, placing his hand on the hem of the goddess’ dress. “Restore my freedom and my rank, my lords, and I swear to you that I shall drive the outlanders from Adalmearc. I will pursue them into the Reach. I will end this threat once and for all, as a knight of Adal fighting for Adal.”
Some of the lords reacted with silence, some with whispers, and a few with open disdain. “Very well,” Konstans declared. “It is time we let our voices be heard. Master Quill.”
The law keeper nodded and took position. “My lords, you have been asked whether the Adalthing should grant clemency to Adalbrand of House Arnling, lifting the death sentence upon him. Thirty-five voices must speak in his favour. Lord Raymond, how do you speak?”
The jarl strode forward. “I speak against mercy of any kind,” he growled. His margraves followed him.
The jarl of Vale took his place by the statue. “I speak in favour of the condemned,” Valerian declared.
“That is seventeen votes,” Arndis whispered anxiously to Eleanor.
“I am in favour of clemency.”
“Twenty-five,” Eleanor counted. “Only ten more are needed.”
One by one, Quill addressed the remaining members. One by one, they walked forward to touch the statue of Disfara and let their voice be known.
“I am against clemency.”
“I speak against.”
“I hold with the original verdict.”
“Let his sentence be carried out.”
“No mercy for traitors.”
“I stand against him.”
“Let the oath breaker die.”
Only a few of the noblemen spoke against their peers. When the last had spoken, Quill cleared his throat. “The Adalthing does not speak with one voice. The request to pardon Adalbrand of House Arnling is rejected.” His hands shook slightly, and he hid them again inside his sleeves again.
Konstans moved forward. “We must obey the will of the Adalthing. Even so, I have heard Jarl Theodstan’s words that the public execution of a kinsman to our prince, however remote their kinship, would be an ill sign. Therefore, I ameliorate the sentence upon the condemned from death to exile. Let him depart from our realm and cause no further disturbance.” After this magnanimous declaration, Konstans sent Brand a condescending smile.
Some nodded in agreement with this while others were dissatisfied; as for Brand, he broke from the crowd. “So be it,” he spoke. “Regardless, I shall do as I have declared. With or without you, I will see Hæthiod free and the Reach burn. By the Seven and Eighth, I swear it.” Walking tall, he strode out of the hall.
While the Adalthing continued discussing other matters, Brand walked with a furious pace through the hallways. He pushed a door open and strode onto the parapet, breathing heavily of the fresh air. The city spread before his gaze, but he paid it little heed, staring upwards at the sky. There was a faint touch of rain falling.
“I am sorry. You deserved better.” Behind Brand, Godfrey approached.
Still staring ahead, Brand exhaled and placed his hands on the crenellations in front of him. “I knew to expect this. Still, somehow I thought that they would see reason. That all I had done would yield some manner of good will towards me.”
Godfrey walked up to stand beside him. “Children are born on the streets of almost every city I have been to. Their lives are gone before they ever had the chance to do anything to deserve such a fate.” He gave a mirthless smile. “In a grim twist of irony, the only cities where such would not happen are those under the rule of the Godking.”
“The Godking,” Brand repeated. “I have marched against him before, but last I had the Order and an army. Now, I have nothing.”
“You are not alone in this,” Godfrey told him. “You have more friends than you realise.”
“Not in Middanhal.”
Godfrey cleared his throat. “I heard you assembled an army of highlanders and brought them to Adalrik. I imagine your intention was to defeat those usurping power in Middanhal. Exactly like Arn did.”
“I confess that is the truth.”
Godfrey turned his head to look at Brand. “But Sigvard took up arms against the outlanders. It was him who led your people to victory in the Great War.”
Brand returned his gaze. “I never knew it was the outlanders that Sigvard fought.”
Godfrey gave a slow nod. “Of your two illustrious ancestors, it is not Arn but Sigvard that I see in you.”
Brand let out a deep breath. “Flattery,” he spoke in accusation.
Godfrey allowed a wry smile to show. “Whatever it takes.”
“It is not needed. I already declared my intentions, and I will not retreat.” Brand straightened his back. “To Hæthiod once more, and the Reach beyond.”
“Do not be discouraged,” his companion added. “The path may look the same, but you tread upon it a new man.”
“I prefer how it was last year,” the young man said with a joyless smile, “when I had an army.”
“You will assemble another. One that follows you, not your rank,” Godfrey pointed out.
“Let us hope it is enough.”
Leaving the walls, Brand went to his sister’s quarters at the Citadel. He found her together with Geberic. “There you are, milord,” the latter exclaimed relieved. “Glaukos went after you, but I just realise that he doesn’t know the castle. He’s probably lost somewhere in the dungeons by now.”
“Brand,” Arndis spoke gently, “are you well?”
“Yes. I need to tell my men. And Gwen. They should have a few days to prepare if they wish to follow me to the Reach.”
“You intend to go through with this?” his sister asked.
“I do. I am exiled from Adalrik,” Brand reminded her. “I cannot stay here. But in Hæthiod and beyond, there is much I can accomplish.”
“Very well. I have matters to attend to as well before you leave,” Arndis declared. “I will come by the house tonight, and we may dine together.”
“As you wish,” Brand acquiesced, looking a touch confused. His sister gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and left the room. “Do you know where she is going?” he asked Geberic.
The man-at-arms shrugged. “You’re asking a man of my age, who has never been married, what goes on inside the mind of a woman? Might as well ask a harlot what’s it like to be a norn.”
“Let us find Glaukos and be on our way,” Brand declared. Before he set into motion, he turned to look at his companion. “Geberic, you were a sworn thane to the jarl of Theodstan.”
“Now that’s something I am familiar with,” the greybeard snorted.
“Why did you leave his service?” Brand stared at him. “Asking to be released from your vow, it cannot have been easy.”
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done, probably,” Geberic confessed. “I saw you, milord, when we crossed the mountains, when we fought at Bradon and at Cudrican. I saw you command.”
“That was it?”
“How could I go back to serving a jarl after knowing how it is to serve a king?”
Brand gave a faint smile. “Let us go. We are pressed for time.”
When the Adalthing finally concluded, Theodoric retreated to his quarters, dismissing his attendants; only Holwyn remained. “Not what we hoped for,” she remarked.
“It was a fool’s errand. I should have known Konstans would not have allowed it. Even worse, he made me waste my time negotiating with the landgraves and made me pay for the privilege,” Theodoric exclaimed bitterly.
“You think that was simply his goal? To increase your yearly payment for his protection?” Holwyn asked.
“I think he saw a quick opportunity to strengthen his position and weaken mine. If I pay those extra gold crowns to him, I cannot spend them on defending Theodstan.”
“Hoarding gold sounds more like his brother, but I see your reasoning.”
“Valerian has become as much a pawn as any of us. Did you hear Konstans’ announcement?”
“Concerning his son and Lady Gunhild?”
Theodoric nodded. “His grandchildren will be dragonborn. Something that none of our previous kings would ever have allowed. Not to mention, two princes are dead, and the third is fastened to strings pulled by Konstans. He is the kingmaker of this realm, make no mistake.”
“What will we do?”
The jarl took a deep breath and exhaled. “We will return to Theodstan and ride this storm out. This war that engulfs us, all this strife, it is far from over.”
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