The fair at Silfrisarn was the largest of its kind in northern Adalrik, and it had taken place for centuries. At first, it had simply been for iron merchants to purchase ore from the mines of Isarn. Being placed between the copper veins of Vidrevi and the tin mountains of Heohlond, the fair had a natural location to facilitate trade of these metals as well. Wool, always the biggest trade of the realm, became part of the fair also, and many other items eventually followed. At present, countless goods for many purposes were sold and bought at the Silfrisarn fair, though the trade in metals and wool retained the greatest importance.
To the jarls of Isarn, this yearly event had become their greatest source of revenue along with their silver production. All the iron ore sold at the markets came from their own mines, and their chests overflowed with taxes levied from those trading. Merchants came from all the northern realms to conduct business during the six days of the fair, and prices for food and lodgings were three times as expensive, allowing the citizens of Silfrisarn to earn a handful of silver as well. For the entire jarldom, the Silfrisarn fair meant prosperity, even in times of war.
The sheer size of the markets had long precluded the fair from taking place inside the walls of Silfrisarn. Instead, the fields south of the city were bursting with tents, stalls, carts, and countless goods. Those in the horse trade had their own location furthest to the east, necessitated by the overpowering smell of the beasts. On the first day of the fair, the jarl himself could be found inspecting the animals. Being lord of the region, Isenhart claimed the right to be the first buyer of any horses that attracted his attention. As a result, he moved through the pens, accompanied by his thanes, the master of his stables, and a scribe keeping notes.
Commotion arose as Eumund rode through the market; his magnificent steed drew appraising glances and approving remarks. Reaching his father, the thanes stood aside to let the jarl’s son approach. With the ease of an experienced rider, Eumund dismounted fluently to stand by Isenhart. “Father,” he spoke. “You wanted to know the moment that Uncle Athelstan sent word. That moment is now.”
The jarl stood by a mare, feeling her teeth. “Eumund, what do you think of this horse?”
“She is a fine beast. She would be worth breeding.”
The jarl scratched his beard before giving a nod to his scribe, who jotted down a few words. “Come with me,” Isenhart commanded Eumund. “Let us find less ears to hear Athelstan’s message.”
With the thanes keeping people at bay, the jarl and his son left the pens and stood at the edge of the horse fair. Their eyes beheld empty fields to the south, in contrast to the noise and smell of the markets assaulting their other senses.
When none but his sworn men were near, Isenhart spoke again. “What did your uncle say?”
“He and Athelbold have arrived at Cairn Donn. They have been well received by King Brión, and few others but the king are aware of their presence. Vale also has emissaries in the city.”
“Vale,” Isenhart spat. “As we expected. Athelstan best not disappoint in his task.”
“He will not,” Eumund claimed. “He never does.”
“I suppose,” the jarl granted. “Do you have the latest count of the men from Vidrevi?”
“Not the latest. Last I heard, about five hundred had arrived, but that was days ago. I can enquire with the steward,” Eumund suggested.
“Do so.” Isenhart turned to walk back towards the horse fair.
“Father,” Eumund uttered. “Do you think it wise to trust King Folkmar, or any of the foresters?”
The jarl gave a contemptuous smile. “Hardly. But if he betrays us, we will show him our steel once we are done with the southern silkworms. Until then, we will put his arrows to work.”
As the jarl returned to inspecting the horses, Eumund mounted his own steed and rode back to the keep.
“Isenwald? Are you in here?”
“Yes, Mother.” The heir to Isarn stood inside his chambers at the window, staring out at the city.
“There you are! Some of your cousins were hoping you would take them to the fair.” The jarlinna moved through the parlour to enter his bedchamber. “Is something the matter?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Isenwald of Isarn, I gave birth to you. Do not think for one moment you can fool me.” She walked up to stand next to her son. Her fingers toyed with the tip of an elegant braid, resting over her shoulder. “You are troubled by ill thoughts.”
“These are – ill times,” he replied in his slow fashion.
“They are,” Halla admitted. “But you were never one to let such thoughts fester in your soul.”
He let out his breath. “How can – I ever be jarl, Mother?” He gestured with hand towards the city beyond the window. “How can – I ever shoulder that responsibility?”
“Because you were born to it, my son.”
“It would have been better – if Eumund was the – oldest.”
“Either of you would make an excellent jarl,” Halla claimed. “The fates wanted it to be you, and they always have their reasons. Tell me, what has brought these feelings up?”
“I think – I made mistakes – in Middanhal. If not for me, maybe this war could have been avoided.”
“Nothing could have prevented it,” Halla said firmly. “Look at me, boy.” She took hold of his chin to turn his face towards hers. “From what I hear, your brother and uncle would have met their end on the scaffold if you had not ensured they were freed alongside you. Others would have fled, but not you.”
“I – didn’t really think – in that moment,” Isenwald admitted. “Someone like Eumund would have – immediately considered the – importance – of freeing Uncle Athelstan.”
“Because he thinks strategy,” Halla assented. “You thought with your heart, protecting your family. You and your brother have different instincts, but they both lead to good decisions. That is why I have no doubt you will make a great jarl, my son. In fact, I look forward to seeing you assume the responsibility.”
“Hopefully not for many years,” Isenwald expressed.
Halla moved her hand up to caress his cheek. “You’re a good man, Isenwald. Now, your mother needs many things from the market. Will you accompany me? We will bring some of your unruly cousins, and you can practice being ruler by wrangling them.”
“I would rather tame wild dogs,” Isenwald remarked with a wry look, but he offered his mother his arm, and they left his chambers together.
In another chamber in the keep, a pale woman lay in bed. By her side sat Athelgar, using a cloth and cold water to cool the woman’s brow.
“Athelgar, dear boy, is your father home yet?” she asked with a feeble voice.
“No, Mother. He is in Heohlond, still. It will be days before he returns.” He gently removed a few beads of sweat.
“Right, you told me so. Forgive me.” Anhild moved a hand over to pat him on the knee.
“Nothing to forgive, Mother.” He placed the cloth in the bowl of water on the nearby table, wringing it afterwards.
“I just wish he were here.”
“I know he wishes the same,” Athelgar claimed, using the cloth on her brow again.
“Do you think it will be long?”
“Some days, Mother, maybe longer.”
“How long?” The question was swallowed by a coughing fit.
“I think you should rest,” Athelgar told her.
“That is all I do,” she complained.
“Just for a little bit,” her son impressed upon her. “I will be back later and bring you something to eat.”
“Soup, I bet,” the sickly woman replied with sudden bite in her voice, but she closed her eyes obediently. With quiet movements, Athelgar rose and left the chamber, carefully shutting the door behind him.
Outside, he found a small boy sitting in the corridor. “What are you doing here?” Athelgar asked sternly. “I thought you went to the fair with the others.”
“How is Mama?”
“She is resting, and you are not to disturb her,” the youth stressed. “Why are you not at the fair?”
“I did not feel like going.”
Athelgar tussled his brother’s hair. “Sitting here will not be any better. Come.” He extended his hand towards the boy. “I have enough silver to buy you something amusing, if it will get you on your feet.”
“There is not anything I want,” the boy claimed, but he accepted Athelgar’s hand and got on his feet.
“Wait until you see the woodworkers,” Athelgar declared confidently, leading the boy out of the hallway.
A week later, the fair drew to a close. The citizens of Silfrisarn returned from the markets for the last time, decorating themselves and their homes with fine clothing, jewellery, carpets, and ornaments. The peasants put their draught beasts before the cart, having sold crops, wool, hides, cattle, and sheep while bringing everything back their own homesteads could not produce. Lastly, merchants departed either east or west; goods and metals common in Vidrevi were now brought to Heohlond and reverse.
One thing set the final day of this fair apart from those of previous years. A steady number of foresters had arrived over the week. They had not come in carts or carrying goods. All they brought were bows and blades, they sold nothing but their service, and they swelled the ranks of Jarl Isarn.