What the Future Holds
The day after the Adalthing, Nicholas was in Lowtown. He was wearing the finest clothes that he could get hold of on short notice. The sleeves were a bit too long, and the weave was slightly tattered in places; other than that, he looked grander than he ever had before in his life. By his side stood Ellen, wearing her mother’s best dress. They were in the yard of her father’s tavern; the man himself stood behind, sniffing and wiping his eyes. Quentin and a few others from Brand’s followers stood scattered along with some neighbours to act as witnesses, though the locals kept their distance from Nicholas’ armed friends; a couple of hens, a cow, and a pig were also watching with disinterest. Lastly, a geolrobe was present, conducting the ceremony.
“As these threads are entwined, so your lives become one. Stronger together than apart,” the priest proclaimed, tying the strings around the couple’s wrists together.
“I can’t believe it,” Quentin mumbled. “Nicholas, a married man.”
“I cannot believe he wanted us present,” Glaukos remarked.
“Me, it’s obvious. I’m his best mate. As for you, it’s because you’re one of the few other heathmen in our company. Don’t flatter yourself,” Quentin said pointedly.
Glaukos looked around the small yard in which the wedding was taking place between haystacks and animal pens. “I would never dare to presume.”
“Congratulations!” shouted the father of the bride, making the Hæthians turn their attention back on the couple. The ceremony was over, and Nicholas and Ellen had turned around to receive the felicitations of their guests.
“Thank you, Master Gilbert,” Nicholas smiled, as his father-in-law shook his hand vigorously.
“You look just like your ma,” sniffed the tavern keeper, embracing his daughter afterwards.
“The boys and I scraped some coin together for this,” Quentin mumbled. He held an elongated item in his hands, wrapped in cloth. With Glaukos’ help, the fabric was removed to reveal a statuette of Austre. It was exquisitely carved in wood and depicted her wearing a green dress while pulling back her bowstring with an arrow at the ready. “We figured she’d be happy to keep an archer like you safe. And it’ll remind Ellen of you until you’re home,” he explained awkwardly, looking away.
“It’s marvellous,” Nicholas declared with an admiring voice while Ellen planted kisses on their cheeks.
“You’re welcome,” Quentin muttered.
“Brother Caradoc offered to make one,” Glaukos added, “but we had a feeling Austre would end up a lot more muscular and wielding a hammer instead of a bow.”
“Glaukos made a jest, and we haven’t even served the ale yet!” Nicholas exclaimed in wonder.
“Time to remedy that! Pa, our guests are thirsty!” Ellen called to her father.
“At once, at once!” Soon, food and drink were served, and the celebration continued throughout the day.
The day before Brand’s departure, his sister went to their family home once again. She found his band busy with their preparations, though all had time to stop and greet her courteously. “Do not let me interrupt. I simply seek my brother,” she told them.
“He is in the library, milady,” a thane pointed out.
“Much obliged.” She sent the soldier a smile and continued inwards into the house.
The library at the estate of House Arnling was mostly called so out of tradition. Its shelves were empty, as over the years, the books had been sold. Brand stood in the middle of the room; at the sound of footfall, he turned. “Sister,” he smiled.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just curious. I might never see this place again,” Brand explained, glancing around. “It was never home to me for long, but I feel reluctance to leave nonetheless.”
“You will see it again,” Arndis promised him. “It will be here when you get back.”
He reached out to touch her shoulder affectionately. “You always tend to be right.”
She untied a small bag by her belt. “Until then, you will have need of this.”
“Coin? Arndis, you should keep your silver. You will have plenty of need for it.”
“It is not silver.”
With a doubtful face, Brand took the bag. Pouring some of its content into his hand, his expression turned to amazement upon seeing gold. “Arndis, there is a small fortune in crowns here!”
“I know. I put it there myself,” she remarked.
“I invested the spoils of your victories over Isarn. The same after the battles in Hæthiod, though those investments are still tied up in goods. Also, I have retained a small sum,” Arndis elaborated. “While the civil war drags on, tin prices will plummet. I intend to buy as much as I can when prices are lowest. Once Isarn has been defeated and trade to Vidrevi is re-established, our coin should have doubled many times over.”
Brand stared at her impressed. “I was going to ask if you wanted to join me in Hæthiod. I am sure the queen will welcome you at her court along with Eleanor, but I see now that would be a waste of your gifts.”
“My business affairs necessitate that I am in Middanhal, but I appreciate your thought,” she told him. She nodded towards the gold in his hands. “I realise it is limited how many soldiers this can equip, but in time, I can send more.” She closed his hands around the coins. “Use it, Brand. Prove them all wrong. Let them know that House Arnling still stands tall.”
“I will. If it kills me, by the Seven and Eighth, I will.”
“Good. Though do try to stay alive. I prefer you that way.”
He gave a faint smile. “I will do my best.”
Konstans sat in the dragonlord’s study, watching a Red Hawk pacing around the room. “I wasn’t warned that the jarl was a madman,” Jerome complained. He had been in hiding ever since returning from Isarn’s camp. “He cut down the prince without a second thought, right in front of my eyes!”
“You complain a lot for a man who not only escaped unharmed, but also made a sizeable amount of coin,” Konstans remarked. On the desk between them lay a small bag with a handful of gold crowns inside. “You did not even have to touch the prince yourself, Isenhart did the task for you. Easiest coin you have ever made.” He motioned towards the gold.
Jerome finally stopped, eyeing the bag. “I suppose. Just as well. The other Hawks don’t trust me anymore. They think I was off on some pleasant journey while they were fighting, and I can’t tell them the truth now, can I.”
“No,” Konstans replied pointedly. “You cannot.”
“At least this is enough to get me started somewhere else.” Jerome grabbed the bag and tied it to his belt.
“What if I had another task for you? One that pays double of what you just received.”
Jerome hesitated. “Gold is no use to a dead man.”
“With what you have, you can lead a comfortable existence, I am sure. But with three times the amount of coin,” Konstans argued, “you will have servants, fine clothes, and all your desires. I will even have my brother elevate you to the rank of beorn.”
“That’s possible?” Jerome frowned.
“For the lord protector? Of course.”
Jerome swallowed. “What’s the task?”
“You know of Adalbrand? The disgraced knight.”
“I’ve heard of him.”
“He is going on a campaign in Hæthiod. Even the Reach, he claims,” Konstans explained with contempt.
“And he’s a problem for your lordship?”
“He is. Thankfully, war is dangerous. I do not want there to be any possibility that he ever returns to Adalrik.”
Jerome licked his lips. “And when I come back with the news that he never will?”
“The gold is yours.”
“It shall be done,” Jerome promised. He gave a short bow and left.
From a neighbouring room, Konstans’ wife appeared. “Let us hope this finally settles the question of this upstart crow,” she sneered. “He has been a thorn in our side for too long.”
“I doubt the name Adalbrand will trouble us further,” her husband spoke calmly.
“All this could have been avoided if you had not granted him safe passage,” Mathilde reproached him. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“It secured our alliance with Theodstan. We needed allies,” Konstans explained. “We lost our strongest ally when Duke Belvoir died, and thanks to the rebellion by his son, the Order will not be receiving any reinforcements from Ealond either. Not to mention, Adalbrand was under Theodoric’s protection. Had I refused, the little worm would have slunk back to Heohlond in hiding. This smoked him out. We know where he is going, and now, we also know he will not be returning.”
“I suppose,” Mathilde relented. “The sooner it is done, the better. If he wins any more victories, he will only become a greater danger to us.”
“I doubt he will have any success,” Konstans remarked dismissively. “The Order army will not follow a disgraced knight, and there is enmity between him and Prince Flavius, meaning that the soldiers of Korndale will not follow him either. Adalbrand is little more than a brigand with a band of outlaws.”
“Very well. As for the other matter you asked me about,” Mathilde continued. “I will have to return to Valcaster.”
“You cannot ask any of the sibyls here?”
She gave an overbearing smile. “They are not fond of remedies to ensure only sons are conceived. Being all women, I suppose they feel threatened.”
“I thought it was a sibyl in Valcaster who gave you that same remedy before you became pregnant with Konstantine.”
She shook her head. “No, just a wise woman that one of my handmaidens knew. I will have to consult the same woman. If she is still alive after all these years.”
“Very well. You should go soon, so you will be back in time for the wedding.”
“I will. And once Konstantine has a son with the Hardling girl,” Mathilde considered, “what do we do with Inghard?”
“Nothing for now. Our position is precarious as it is. Let a few years pass without murder,” he snorted. “Once Konstantine and Gunhild has a son, and we are sure the boy is strong and healthy, we can consider removing Inghard. Sigvard’s dynasty has ruled for a thousand years – I will make certain ours last for ten thousand,” he swore.
His wife smiled, bowing down to kiss him. “Have I mentioned how handsome you are?”
“Power does that to a man,” he replied, throwing his arms around her to return the kiss forcefully.
The next morning heralded the day of departure for Brand and those choosing to follow him. As the rumours spread, volunteers had showed up to join his campaign, swelling his numbers to at least double. The final addition came just as Brand’s column was about to leave the Arnling estate; several carts loaded with supplies and equipment drove up, guarded by Order soldiers and led by a knight.
“Sir Fionn!” Brand exclaimed as the knight dismounted. They clasped each other’s arm.
“Still in time, I see,” the warrior replied with a grin. “I come with the blessings of both Captain Theobald and the quartermaster,” he explained. “They both want to see the war in Hæthiod come to a successful conclusion.”
“I never had a chance before to thank you,” Brand told him earnestly. “You took a risk that night at the walls, seeing me to safety. I owe you.”
“Nonsense. One knight protects another,” Fionn spoke gruffly. “Now you can win this war, Sir Adalbrand, and I will be happy to help.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Brand turned to look over his shoulder. “Geberic, make sure these carts find a place in our train.” He raised his voice. “We are moving out!”
“Aye, captain! You heard him, move!” Slowly, the cortege set into motion.
Returning from market, Egil entered the library and placed his purchases on the table; most of it was food of different kinds along with a wineskin. “Master Quill, I am back,” he called out.
“Good, good,” the scribe responded. “Will you pour a cup for me? I feel a little uneasy.”
“Of course, master,” Egil replied, doing as he was bid.
Quill took a deep draught. “Much better,” he sighed. “Boy, I forgot,” he continued. “I have not added the decisions of the Adalthing to the annals.”
“You told me yesterday. I prepared the book,” Egil explained, pointing towards the scriptorium.
“Good. You are a good lad, Egil,” Quill told him. “I just need to rest, and I will take care of it.” With a hand that slightly shook, the librarian put the cup away and went to his room.
Egil watched him leave. Once the chamber door closed, the apprentice went to the scriptorium. By one of the writing desks, an enormous tome lay open. One page was already filled with letters while the other was blank. Egil moved over to sit down in front of the book. Grabbing the nearby feather pen, he dipped it in ink and let any superfluous fluid drain away. Taking a deep breath, he placed the tip against the empty page and began writing.