The Carven City
They sailed through the nights, as the wind allowed; the oarsmen needed sleep, after all. The stars provided guidance for the captain or his helmsman, as they steered the longship across the open sea of Drake Run.
On the second day, small islands could be spotted on the horizon. All of them had their villages and towns, little harbours of fishing boats and moored longships, and each isle was ruled by its own jarl. The ship from Fortönn paid them no heed, having enough supplies to continue to the journey unimpeded. With skill, the captain led the vessel through the straits between the islands, barely losing speed.
Near sunset, Eldrey came into sight. It was by far the largest island in the kingdom of the thousand isles, and it gave home to Dvaros, the capital. Darkness fell, but this proved no hindrance. Lighthouses along the cliffs of Eldrey provided warning, letting the ship sail along the coast without danger.
Brand woke early in the morning, before sunrise, as the ship’s boy woke the captain sleeping nearby. “Helmsman says it’s time to signal the dogs, captain,” the lad told his master, who grunted in reply and got up.
Moving through the rows of men sleeping where possible, the captain replaced the helmsman by the stern. Sitting down, one hand on the helm, the master of the vessel took the horn hanging around his neck, but he did not blow it yet.
Brand looked ahead and saw not one, but two lights in the distance. The ship’s boy, noticing him awake, moved closer. “The hounds of Dvaros,” he explained.
“The lighthouses that guard the entrance,” Brand realised. “I have heard of them.”
“They’re a sight to be sure,” the boy nodded. “Tall as mountains, each holding a torch that burns to guide us home. And the chain between them keeps the harbour protected, of course.”
“I assume we will not sail blindly into that.”
The boy laughed. “Just wait, milord, you’ll see. Or rather, you’ll hear.”
As the lights grew closer, the captain finally placed his horn to his lips. Long, drawn-out notes issued from the simple instrument, easily heard across the open waters. From the darkness ahead of them, the same crude melody came in response.
“The dogs relax their guard,” grinned the ship’s boy. “The chain is down, and we can enter.”
Twilight had arrived by the time they reached Dvaros. As told, two great statues rose the height of twenty men on either side of the harbour entrance. Each statue showed a warrior. He held one hand on the sword hilt by his belt, and the other held a torch high. Inside, fire blossomed, guiding sailors towards the city.
With a gentle nudge of the elbow, Brand woke Jana as their ship glided past the statues. In the clear water below them, they could see the giant chain that during nights blocked the entrance for hostile ships. Normally, it would not be lowered before daybreak, except when given signal by one of the king’s captains, such as on this morrow.
The statues, given the ekename of the hounds for guarding the entry, stood supported by imposing walls that ran to reach the rising cliffs. Dvaros lay on a hillside that rolled down to meet the sea, surrounded by mountains. This meant that as they sailed past the statues, the city rose in all directions up the slopes.
With timber reserved for shipbuilding, near all buildings in Dvaros were made from stone. Some were built, but the oldest had been carved into the mountainsides that lay around the city. Superbly defensible with its secure location, this also proved the city’s only disadvantage; all available space between the mountains and the sea in the small pocket had quickly been used up, and further expansion was only possible upwards, slowly building with suitable stone quarried from far away.
For this reason, Herbergja had swiftly overtaken Dvaros in population; along with its location on the mainland, it was the economic heart of Thusund and all of Adalmearc. But Dvaros remained the seat of the kings; it was rumoured to be the oldest city of Men in all the Seven Realms, and none could dispute its dignity.
The crew moored the ship with routine skill. This early in the morning, the harbour lay quiet. Drunk sailors had already returned to their ships for the night, and the dockworkers had not begun the day’s labour yet. Their arrival was mostly overseen by cats, ceasing their chase of rats to watch the captain disembark along with four of his warriors and his two passengers. In the first light of day, the small group began their march.
The stone city of Dvaros possessed harsh beauty, but the grey and white left little room for green things to grow, making the settlement seem cold. Especially at this time of year, with winter solstice almost upon them. Jana shivered slightly in the breeze that always blew from the sea, and Brand took her arm to keep her close. As for the islanders, they did not pay much heed to cold or their captives, talking merrily about visiting family, alehouses, or both, now they had returned to Dvaros.
“I notice we are not in Herbergja,” Brand remarked pointedly at the captain, who led the way.
“You’re not blind,” he snorted in response. They moved uphill on streets hewn into the rock itself.
“What will Sir Hákon think of this when he finds out your deception? Or the marshal, for that matter.”
The captain laughed. “I serve the king of Thusund, not any knight nor the marshal. What can they do to me? They’ll still need my king’s ships to patrol the Teeth. King Leiknarr, on the other hand, would have my ship and probably my head if I let a dragonborn slip through my fingers.”
“I hold no titles nor lands. What possible interest could I be to anyone?” Brand argued.
“I can’t rightly say, which is why I leave the decision to the king,” the captain replied.
“What of Sir Hákon’s letter to the marshal?”
“If the king wants it delivered, it will be.”
The captain increased the pace, and the rest were forced to hurry along, continuing their march up the hill towards the royal castle.
The king’s residence overlooked both city and harbour, visible from almost anywhere and a clear reminder of his rule. With half the castle carved into the rock, it was impregnable against attack from several sides, and tall towers guarded the rest.
The gate had barely opened for the day as they passed through. The captain left them in the courtyard under guard, continuing inside alone. Standing still, Jana shivered once more; the pale, northern sun had little strength in winter compared to Alcázar. Pulling his cloak around him, Brand extended it to shield her as best he could from the wind.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“I have little idea,” he admitted. “Perhaps with luck, we will be sent on our way to Herbergja again.”
“Dvaros or Herbergja, it makes little difference to me as such. I am a stranger either way. But any chance that we might retreat to the wide forests of Vidrevi seems lost,” she considered, looking up at him.
“Maybe not,” he muttered with little conviction.
“If your arrival could not be kept secret on that little island, it will surely already have spread through this city. Every oarsman aboard that ship would have told the news. People will know you have returned to the realms, Brand. Friends and enemies alike.”
He was spared having to reply by the return of the captain, along with a man clad in fine clothes. “I am the steward of this castle,” the latter explained. “You are guests of King Leiknarr. Please follow me.” He turned around to walk back into the fortress, expecting to be obeyed. Looking at the captain and his warriors, Brand took Jana’s arm and followed the steward.
They did not walk far, entering a hall of some size with many doors allowing for traffic in every direction through the castle. The steward gestured for them to stop and bade them wait for a moment, disappearing into a hallway.
The pair stood alone, unguarded, while the castle slowly woke from sleep around them. Servants could be heard in the distance, preparing the day’s tasks. “I suppose leaving is not much of an option,” Jana mused.
Brand shook his head a little. “Even if we could hide somewhere in the city, we would never find passage off the island. They leave us unwatched because we have no choice but to stay.”
“If they offer me a bath, I will make no objections,” Jana admitted.
The steward returned with a male and female servant, clapping his hands. “As the king’s honoured guests, I am happy to extend his hospitality.” He spoke this with a blank expression and slightly bored tone of voice. “If you will follow these good people, they will ensure baths are prepared and – new sets of clothing.” The final words came with a raised eyebrow directed at the rags they currently wore. In contrast to the steward’s disinterested manner, Jana lit up into a smile and almost skipped as she followed the female servant deeper into the castle. Less enthusiastic and glancing around at every side, Brand followed the male attendant.
An hour later, they met up again. Both had been able to wash away the dust of long journeys, and Jana’s hair had been brushed and braided by deft hands. She wore a simple dress of same cloth and cut as any servant; likewise, Brand wore an undyed, woollen tunic as used by the common folk of the castle.
“Anything amiss?” Brand asked quietly as yet another servant led them through corridors.
“On the contrary, I was well treated. Though I am starving. You?”
“So far, we have been met with hospitality,” Brand granted. “Except that we cannot consider ourselves free to leave, of course.”
“These island people seem to have affinity for your name,” Jana considered. “Maybe this king of theirs shares the sentiment.”
“I will keep my hope in reserve until we actually meet him,” her companion muttered.
They moved into the deeper parts of the castle, carved into the mountain until they were in fact underground. No windows could provide light; a few scarce lamps burned day and night, casting long shadows down the hallways. The servant led them into a cold room with bookshelves along the walls, ostensibly the king’s library. He did not go further, but gestured for the pair to proceed to an inner chamber.
They did so, finding themselves in what appeared to be a study or scriptorium of sorts. A few writing desks held ink and quills along with scattered pieces of parchment and books in different stages of completion. More curiously, a short person sat waiting for them. In front of him stood a table with two stools by it, and food had been placed on the table.
“Welcome. I am Gnupa, keeper of the king’s library.” He rose to incline his head in their direction. Apart from his short stature, standing about as tall as Jana, his skin had a brown tone except where marked with dye to form runes. With his sleeves slightly rolled back, protecting them from the ink stains that dotted his fingers, they saw the tail end of such markings by his wrists. His right ear held a golden ring in the manner of all Dwarves. Lastly, his eyes held no dark, and he stared in their direction without seeing; he was blind.
Jana made half a bow before she saw his face in the sparse light and stopped herself. “Well met, and thank you for your welcome, Master Gnupa.” Brand cleared his throat, giving no other greeting.
“Please, sit.” The Dwarf gestured in the general direction of the stools and took his own suggestion, returning to his chair. “I thought we might break fast together. I should like to speak with you, but there is no reason we cannot tend to our need for sustenance at the same time.”
Jana followed suit, taking a seat and extending her hand towards a cup of ale. She looked up at Brand, still standing. “Well, I am thirsty,” she mouthed to him, demonstratively taking the cup and drinking from it. A moment later, Brand capitulated and sat down as well, though he did not touch the food or drink.
“Forgive me, my lady,” Gnupa spoke. “By your refined behaviour and the sonorous manner in which you speak Nordspeech, I can only assume you are a woman of noble birth from Alcázar. Yet while I know your companion’s name, I am in the dark as to yours.”
“Oh.” She glanced at Brand briefly. “I am Lady Jana of House al-Saqr.”
Gnupa smiled. “Of course. Nothing less than a princess of that renowned city would do.” His smile turned to laughter. “This morning, I thought I should break the fast alone. An hour ago, I prepared to dine with a dragonborn. Now I sit across a princess of Alcázar. If this continues, Eirik Wyrmbane will be in my chamber by nightfall.” Even after he ceased speaking, he continued to chuckle.
“While I am delighted you find favour in our company,” Brand spoke with a flat voice belying his claim, “I wonder why the king’s guests are speaking to the king’s librarian.”
“Brand, drink something,” Jana whispered. “Remember the desert.” Reluctantly, he took his cup and sipped from it.
Gnupa, whose hands expertly found dried pieces of fruit, fish, and meat, nodded towards the food. “I apologise for the meagreness of the meal. This deep in winter, we do not have the sumptuous offerings that summer might provide. The bread, at least, is freshly baked.”
“At present, I will eat anything put before me,” Jana admitted, breaking bread to place a piece on her plate and another on Brand’s.
“You are kind, given what I know of the many flavours on offer in Alcázar.” The Dwarf smiled towards the direction of Jana’s voice.
Brand tapped one finger against the table. “Has the king expressed any interest in seeing us?”
Gnupa finished chewing a dried fig and carefully touched his lips with a piece of cloth. “The king will see you when it suits him, no doubt. I requested your presence for a few reasons. Curiosity, in part, but also for the very reasons you arrived in Thusund through the Teeth.”
“You are well-informed,” Brand said, though it did not sound like a compliment.
“If anything of note happens on this island, I am soon made aware,” Gnupa remarked. “My eyes may be useless, but my ears are not.” He grinned. “Besides, I was warned that you might make your way to Thusund and be in need of aid.”
Brand frowned. “Warned?”
From his sleeve, Gnupa produced a small rune-stave. He let his fingers run over the carvings. “Adalbrand is tied to our cause,” he muttered while Jana stared with fascination. “Lend him aid if need be. Signed only by a single rune that stands for Godfred.”
Brand exhaled. “You are a friend of Godfrey’s. You know of my journey to Alcázar.”
“The first is true,” Gnupa confirmed. “The second, I did not know as such. This,” he said, holding up the rune-stave, “was simply one of Godfred’s precautions, alerting his allies to be on the lookout for you.”
“Does this mean you can get us to Herbergja?” Brand asked eagerly, while Jana looked back and forth between the two.
Gnupa shook his head. “Breakfast is one thing, but I hardly have the authority to dismiss the king’s – guests. But you need not worry about Sir Hákon’s missive to Sir Asger. The good marshal shall be warned of the threat, what little good it may do.”
“How so? With months to prepare, surely Thusund and the Order can withstand the invasion under way,” Brand argued.
“Whether through misfortune or cunning ploys, we are poorly prepared,” Gnupa admitted. “Matters on the mainland are ill, and the Order will not have many troops to spare. As for Thusund… that is the king’s prerogative to tell you or not.” His blind eyes turned from Brand to Jana and back, staring past either.
“All the more reason I am sent to Herbergja, in that case. I am of little use here,” Brand claimed.
The Dwarf gave a shrug. “That is for the king to decide.”
Brand sat in silence for a moment. “A man cannot sail two ships,” he finally spoke. “Serving your king or serving the realms, you must inevitably place one above the other.”
“Do not worry about my sailing,” Gnupa remarked with his near ever-present smile. “It will take more than reciting one of our sayings to make me doubt myself. However, I must ask that you keep your tidings about Alcázar to yourself. News of an impending invasion could cause disruption here at court. The king’s hospitality is dependent on your discretion.”
“How generous,” Brand muttered.
“Do not let that keep you from enjoying your food,” Gnupa continued.
“The bread is good,” Jana added, glancing at her companion. “And you do not know when the next meal may come.”
“The wisdom of the poets.” The Dwarf helped himself to another serving.
With little enthusiasm, Brand took the bread from his plate. “Are we to be confined to cells once this cheerful meal is at an end?”
“Hardly. You are free to move around the castle. While I maintain this room for my own needs, the library itself is at your disposal. The gardens are rather cold this time of the year, but the lesser hall has a fire going during the day, around which storytellers and those of musical skill may gather,” Gnupa told them. “I am sure the steward has already arranged accommodations according to your rank.”
“No doubt,” Brand remarked, slowly demolishing his piece of bread.
A while after his meeting with the king’s guests, Gnupa left his lair. One hand on the wall, he walked with careful steps through the corridors of the castle. Any who saw him knew to move out his way, and the blind Dwarf encountered no hindrance to his path. Any he met were given a cheerful greeting, usually mentioning their name if he heard the other person’s voice first.
His destination was another study similar to his own, though it barely held books of any kind. The desk had equipment for writing, but little else. The room also contained a fireplace with roaring flames; an old man sat in a chair slightly leaned back, warming himself. The Dwarf cleared his throat crossing the threshold.
“Come in, Gnupa. Warm your old bones next to mine.”
“Yes, my king.” The blind librarian made his way through the room, avoiding the furniture with ease that spoke of prior knowledge, taking a seat next to the king.
“Is he as claimed?” King Leiknarr’s voice sounded as tired as he looked.
“He is Adalbrand Arnarson, yes,” Gnupa confirmed.
“What do you make of him?”
“Impatient, first of all. Direct. Subtlety is not his skill, at least not in conversation.”
“Can he be of use to me?” The king’s right hand trembled a little, and he grabbed hold of a curious pendant hanging around his neck. It appeared to be a giant tooth, hanging in a silver chain.
The Dwarf considered the question for a moment. “I think he will balk at the thought of being anyone’s tool, but if given the right incentive, he can.”
“Will bait or spear work best on this fish?” the king asked.
“Bait, I should think. He seems proud and unwilling to yield. But if he is too proud to accept bait…” Gnupa left the remainder unsaid.
“What of the woman?”
“As reported, a daughter of the Kabir himself. Most strange. I did not press for details as to her presence or involvement. It did not seem prudent at this time.”
“A spy?” the king asked with croaked voice.
“I doubt it. She showed no interest when I used news of the situation in Thusund to entice her. Even if the Kabir would use his own daughter in this manner, it does not seem to be the case.”
“Keep her under watch.”
“Of course, my king. If she tries to make contact with any, it will be intercepted.”
Gnupa hesitated briefly. “She cares for him, was my impression. And while I did not personally notice him to reciprocate, I imagine he does. Her beauty was remarked upon by the captain of your ship, which no young man could be blind to.” The Dwarf smiled at his own words. “And our young dragonborn seemed protective of her during their journey, the captain also said.”
“Leverage,” the king breathed. Gnupa turned his face towards the flames, remaining silent. “You may leave.”
“Yes, my king.” The Dwarf rose and left the king alone to his thoughts.