When Hel Approaches
Once more, Salim stood outside Jana’s chamber as he had done each morning for five years. Once her chambermaid had helped the lady and left, he stepped inside. He did not have to make his presence known; she immediately turned to look at him. “Salim,” she called out, sounding apprehensive. “I have something we need to discuss, and I am aware you will not be happy about it.”
His breath came like a growl through his throat.
She raised her hands in front of her. “Just wait. Let me explain.”
He shook his head.
“Just wait. I thought I could convince my brother to spare Brand’s life. Maybe I was a little naïve,” she admitted. “But the matter is serious, Salim. They mean to execute him. He could have days to live, or less.”
The mamluk shrugged.
“It does matter! Salim, he is my friend. I cannot stand idle while he dies.”
Salim disagreed, adding a few gestures.
“I do not know! Only that I will think of something. We were able to get him out his cell once. I am sure we can do it again.”
He asked a question.
“I do not know yet,” Jana reiterated. “We will find some way to get him out of the palace and – maybe on a ship that is bound north.”
Salim crossed his arms, staring at her. He did not look impressed.
Jana took a deep breath. “I know that helping a prisoner escape must carry a heavy penalty. I already thought about it, and I do not wish to involve you –”
“But I realise I cannot hope to do this without you,” she admitted.
His expression made it clear that on this, he agreed with her.
“Salim, please, I will never ask another thing of you. When this is done, I will be the most dutiful daughter any Kabir ever had. I will sit in this chamber from sunrise till sunset if you wish it. But please, help me save my friend.”
He asked her a question. When she did not answer immediately, he repeated it.
“I am not sure,” she confessed. She looked down at the floor, taking a few steps away. “Maybe I just wish to do something for once, to feel that I am important.” She looked at him again. “But I promise you, it is more than that. For years, I spent every day with Brand. I taught him our speech, and he did the same for me. We would play games, read stories together, explore the palace.”
Salim made no reply, but simply listened.
“When I left Alcázar, I buried him in my heart because I thought those days were gone. Returning to this palace, I found memories of him surfacing at every turn,” Jana explained. “Where we would always sit and eat. The trees we would climb in the garden when nobody watched. The walls where we watched the sunset over the waters. When I saw him in the hall, I thought he was a phantasm – that my mind had conjured the past or that I simply saw what I wished to see. But he is flesh and blood, and all my memories of him are flooding my mind.”
Salim exhaled deeply, but he did not interrupt.
“You remember how sad I was when we left for Labdah? You always thought it was because I was leaving my home. Which was true enough, I suppose. I did my best to forget. I resolved to grow up and accept my fate. And you were with me every step of the way, Salim, always there when I needed you.” She walked up to him, taking hold of his hands. “I need you one more time.”
He sighed, freeing one hand to make a gesture.
“I knew you would never disappoint me.” She smiled at him, and he scowled in return, but only in mockery. She laughed and threw her arms around him. He returned the embrace, preventing her from seeing the concern etched into his face.
Jalil held a crumpled note in his hand. “I tell you, someone is plotting!”
His mother regarded him with cool eyes. “Obviously. I do not need a scrap of paper to tell me.” She reached out to receive it from him. “If you will let me read it, at least.” She unfolded it.
“The prisoner was gone for hours. Someone questioned him, or instructed him in lies. I can only imagine to further discredit me,” the prince declared.
“I suppose it was too much to hope for this to be signed,” his mother said to herself.
“This smells of Rana or those courtiers always trailing after her,” Jalil claimed with anger. “As if I have not suffered enough with this northern bastard, they plan new indignities against me!”
“Calm yourself, my son.” Her voice held a trace of disdain. “The harm against you has already been done, much in thanks to your own negligence.”
“The mamluk carrying this order was mute,” Jalil considered. “That must narrow it down. How many can there be of those in the palace?”
“At least thirty or forty,” his mother informed him.
“What? That many?”
“Your grandfather preferred it that way. It kept them from spilling any secrets they overheard. He had a cruel streak, as I recall.”
“Still, that gives us something to go by.”
“For what reason?” She stared at her son with little sympathy. “If this prisoner had spoken to anyone of importance, I would have heard word of it. Most likely, he was fetched to provide entertainment for some of the bored ladies in the harem, easily thrilled at the thought of a little danger. While I hold Rana in little esteem, the old witch would not have been careless in this manner, wasting time to have him bathed and given new clothes.”
“You refuse to take this seriously?”
“My son, I refuse to lend credence to your foolish notions. This note did not come from Rana, that much is clear to me. I have already made my own enquiries into the prisoner. While I once thought he might be of use, he will soon be executed, and my enquiries have turned up nothing of importance.”
“Nothing of importance? He humiliated me!”
“No, Jalil, you did that. And why did you even go near the prisoner? Did I not forbid you?”
“I simply asked his warden a few questions,” he replied with a sour expression. “And I uncovered something you overlooked, I might add.”
“Jalil, I grow tired of how tiresome you are,” she told him with an acerbic voice. “Leave my presence.”
He stood with open mouth; his tongue moved but did not produce sound. Finally, he turned on his heel and stormed out of her chamber.
The Kabir gestured towards Labdah on the great map in his library. “First, their ships must arrive,” he told his son, tracing a line to Alcázar. “The mercenaries will be assembled beforehand. Then, the journey begins. Your first destination will be this island.” He pointed at the small island of Fortönn, sitting at the south-western corner of the Eylonde Sea and the kingdom of Thusund.
“Why this island?” asked Saif.
“Several reasons. The ships of the island kingdom that patrol the Teeth sail from here. Seizing the harbour will give us many of their ships,” the Kabir explained. “Most importantly, it will provide us an excellent staging point to invade the mainland. Once that is underway, our ships can stop for supplies on the journey to reinforce your army. Besides, we cannot allow the islanders to maintain a fleet so close to Drake Run. It would threaten all our reinforcements.”
“How strong is the fortress upon the island?”
“Our spies report the garrison is small. Especially as most of the soldiers are spent patrolling the sea. If you seize the harbour quickly, you should have little resistance taking the fortress.”
“Very well, Father.”
“I will send an advance force of ten thousand troops with you. More than enough to take the island and prepare the next step.” The Kabir pointed at the town of Maleth, sitting up the coast from Alcázar. “Reinforcements and supplies will be sent here, awaiting the fleet’s return. That should secure you swift delivery of both.”
“Very well,” Saif reiterated. He looked at the map and the island chain known as the Teeth. “Could our ships not traverse these straits? We would have no need of the island, and reinforcing our army would be much swifter.”
The Kabir shook his head. “I have made several attempts to investigate this. Our ships are too large for those treacherous straits. The risk is too severe.”
“As you say.” The prince hesitated a moment. “Father, what is our goal? What is it we seek to win in this war?”
The ruler of the city looked away from his son to fix his eyes on Herbergja. “This. This will ensure our trade and keep our city safe. Once it is ours, we may buy all the timber we will ever need from the forest people further to the north – they have no regard for the islanders or the great king upon his throne.”
Saif studied the map. “We have spies there as well, I presume?”
“We do.” The Kabir nodded. “All the information I have collected will be sent with you. I have also a map of the city and one of the island. You will know everything needed to lay siege to either.”
“What of the islanders’ fleet?”
“Conquering the first island should pull a few teeth out,” the Kabir considered. “Furthermore, the islanders are divided at present. We strike at an opportune moment. They should not be able to intercept our reinforcements. Should it happen, the army I send with you at first will still suffice to take the city.”
Saif let a hand rest on the pommel of his sword. “It is hard to fathom the time is almost upon us.”
“Yet it is. It is time we remove these northern chains upon our city. When all is done, Alcázar will be stronger than it has ever been before,” the Kabir claimed. “Come. You must meet the captains of the mercenary companies that will fight under you.”
In the afternoon, Brand was fetched once more while Imad watched with curiosity. This time, there was no bath or other delays; Salim ushered him to Jana’s chamber with speed, avoiding as many eyes on the way as possible.
“Jana,” he exclaimed with a subdued smile. “I am glad to see you again.”
“As am I, though my news is not happy. I do not think I can convince any with influence to stay your execution or even delay it,” she admitted, her brow and voice heavy with sorrow.
“It was always doubtful. Who did you ask? The hāgib?”
“My brother, Saif. He is now my father’s favourite, and we are on good terms,” Jana explained. Salim meanwhile moved to stand by the door and glance into the corridor beyond.
“I remember. Is there any other you might petition? His mother?”
“If Saif would not listen, she will not either. There is only one option left. You must escape.” Jana stared at him, brown eyes into blue. “You must.”
“I have nothing to lose,” Brand considered. “But how? You may have gotten me out of the dungeon, but they will know it was Salim who fetched me.” He glanced towards the mamluk. “You will both be held responsible if I do not return. In fact, my previous visit to you has already been noticed.”
“Then we should make our plans swiftly,” Jana declared. Closing the door, Salim growled in agreement. “I have already discussed it with Salim. We are convinced your best chance is to escape tonight while the palace sleeps. Tomorrow it may already be too late.”
“How will I get out of my cell?”
Jana looked at her protector. “Salim will ensure that.”
Brand followed her gaze. “The guard and the jailer will both have to die, else they will reveal your involvement. Are you prepared to have their blood on your hands?”
Salim walked over to place one hand on Jana’s shoulder. “For me, he is,” she explained.
Brand gave a nod. “In that case, I thank you. I know the palace well enough – if only I can get out of my cell, I think I can escape. There is still the orchard door, is there not?”
Salim nodded, adding a gesture. “With one guard,” Jane said.
“I can handle one guard,” Brand claimed.
“And what after? A ship to take you north?”
He shook his head. “Trusting a captain to let me stow away is far too dangerous. Any that I might approach would be more liable to turn me in. I will have to steal a horse from the stables and leave the city through a gate. With luck, my escape will not be noticed before the gates open for the day.”
Salim’s face expressed his doubt at such luck, but he kept his hands still.
“Very well. Tonight, Salim will let you out of your cell.”
The mamluk added a flurry of extra motions. “He also suggests that he will deal with the guard in the orchard while you steal the horse,” Jana said slowly, interpreting as Salim continued. “It will be faster, and the guard will not suspect a mamluk.”
“If you are willing to do so, I am in no position to reject,” Brand confessed, and he bowed his head deeply to Salim. “I am grateful.” An expression ran across his face. “There is something I have forgotten.”
“What is it?”
“When I was taken captive, I lost my sword.”
“Brand, there are plenty of swords in this city alone.”
“No, no.” He shook his head fervently. “This is a sacred blade. If I lose it, I am cursed.”
“Brand! You cannot be serious!”
“If you can find out where it is, I will get it myself,” he declared.
“You are willing to take such a risk for a sword? A piece of metal?” Jana asked with disbelief.
“Jana, the gods intervene to see me escape certain death,” Brand explained. Salim coughed. “I cannot dishonour my oath to them. I must have this sword.”
The princess of Alcázar stared at the prisoner. “Very well,” she said at length, though her tone did not agree with her words. “My brother has your sword. But there will be a dozen guards tonight between you and his chamber.”
“If you only tell me where it is, I can find my way,” Brand claimed.
“No, you will get caught, and all this will be for nothing.” She scowled for a moment. “I forgot how stubborn you are.”
“The risk is mine. I am prepared to take it.”
“No, that is foolish. I will get it,” Jana declared. Salim frowned and his fingers moved in the air, which she ignored. “The guards will not question my presence. I will get your stupid sword and bring it to you in the orchard.”
“Jana, I cannot allow –”
“You are a prisoner, Brand. What you can and cannot allow is very limited. Besides, I can be just as stubborn as you.” She gave him a challenging stare.
“Salim?” Brand turned to the other man for aid.
The mamluk raised up his hands in defeat.
“I suppose I must accept. And lest you think I am not grateful – thank you, Jana, for getting my stupid sword.”
Salim touched Jana on the shoulder. Letting his thumb and finger meet to make a circle, he lowered his hand. “Salim is saying the sun will soon go down, by which he means that we are running out of time.”
“Yes. Please return me to my cell, Master Salim.”
“Wait,” Jana bade them both. “I am sorry, Salim, you will have to bear this.” She flung her arms around Brand in a tight embrace. “You make sure that you escape,” she mumbled. “Do not let me watch you hang from the gallows.”
A little awkward, Brand returned the gesture. “I can promise you that,” he responded, pulling himself free. “I am of noble blood, after all – if anything, it will be the axe for me.”
She choked a little, either from laughter or tears. “Go,” she told both him and Salim. “Before you are the death of me.”
Back in the dungeon, Salim walked Brand all the way to his cell. As the latter entered the darkness, he sent a final look at the mamluk, who in turn gave a barely noticeable nod. Next to him, Imad pushed the door shut and locked it.
Brand heard retreating footsteps, leaving him alone with Imad. The torturer, standing on his toes, glanced through the bars of the cell door. “Once more, the mouse is back. Did you feed, little mouse, before you scurried home to your hole?”
Brand, already sitting down, raised his head to meet Imad’s gaze. “My companion’s name was Majid. He was a champion of the sands in Labdah. That is all I really know of him.”
“The mouse speaks,” squealed Imad. “But only of the dead. Perhaps because soon, the mouse will join them?”
“But I know he was too good to die in this gods-forsaken place. I know he did not that deserve that.”
Imad smiled with all his teeth. “Then you shouldn’t have killed him, should you.”
“When you die, Hel herself will bring you to her halls. You will be cold to the bone,” Brand told him. “You will know hunger without satiation. Thirst without satisfaction.”
“I don’t fear your gods,” Imad sneered.
“When you walk, you stumble. When you sit, you fall.”
“You hear me? I’m not afraid!”
“When you bend to drink, the water is putrid. When you seek to carve the meat, your knife is dull.”
“When you chew, the food is ash. When you swallow, the drink burns your throat.”
“Shut up!” Imad banged his hands against the door, causing noise to drown out Brand. The latter ceased his speech and lay down to sleep, ignoring any sound made by Imad.