After their meeting with the king’s counsellor, Brand and Jana were shown to the quarters made ready for them. A small wing with a chamber for each, connected by a parlour. Furniture and space appeared scarce, but this was no slight towards the pair; in Dvaros, most rooms tended to be small. Although confined to the castle, their quarters were not meant to insinuate imprisonment; even visiting jarls would not receive better.
As soon as the servant leading the way had left them, Brand checked the bolt on the door between the corridor and the parlour. Finding it strong, he locked the door and turned to Jana. They stared at each other. “Are we thinking the same?”
“I imagine so.” She exhaled. “I am exhausted.”
He nodded, yawning. “Let us make plans afterwards, with clear minds. If you wake before me, wake me as well.”
“Not a chance. You sleep every hour that you can.” She turned to the room prepared for her, leaving him alone. Yawning once more, he went to his own chamber, removed the rope serving as his sword belt, and fell onto the bed.
A fist slammed against the door to their wing. Brand woke with a start at the sound, and his hand grabbed the hilt of his sword. As waning sunlight streamed in through a high, narrow window, he blinked a few times. The heavy knocking continued.
He stepped into the parlour, one hand on the scabbard and the other on the hilt, ready to draw. From her room, Jana appeared with wide eyes, staring from Brand to the door.
“Who demands our attention?” asked Brand.
“The king,” came the brusque answer. “He summons you both.”
Brand lowered the sword in his hand to look at Jana. “One moment, we shall appear.”
“Be swift about it,” muttered the man outside.
While Brand strapped his belt around him, Jana tied her hair together and smoothed her clothes. As she gave Brand a nod, he unbolted the door and opened it.
Outside stood a bearded man, heavily armed. The raven of Thusund sat upon his chest, marking him as one of the king’s housecarls. He glanced up and down Brand, eyes lingering on the sword briefly. “Follow me.”
Jana took Brand’s offered arm, and they followed as instructed.
They walked through the corridors, occasionally meeting servants, courtiers, or other guards. Most stared with curiosity at the pair being accompanied by the king’s warrior, though none spoke to them.
Soon, they reached the king’s chambers, having passed several pairs of housecarls. Their guide motioned towards Brand’s weapon. “Your sword, milord.” The guard blocked their passage forward, hand outstretched.
A barely audible growl came from the former knight. “Brand,” Jana said with warning in her tone.
Relenting, Brand untied the scabbard. “I release it upon your honour,” he told the housecarl.
In turn, the guard stood aside and gestured with his open hand for Brand and Jana to enter.
They did so, finding the same scene as Gnupa did earlier in the day. A sparse room with an old man sitting under furs by the fire.
“Enter,” King Leiknarr bid them. “While your blood might merit the courtesy that I stand to greet you, I shall invoke royal privilege to remain seated. Not out of pride, but for the sake of my knees.” He spoke with a straight face except for his twinkling eyes.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Jana quickly said, bowing to the king. After a moment’s hesitation, Brand inclined his head.
“All the courtesy that can be expected, I wager,” mumbled the king. “Sit.” He motioned towards two chairs opposite his own by the hearth. “It gets on my nerves talking to people standing up.”
Once his guests sat down, the king gave them both scrutinising looks. “Adalbrand of House Arnling, and Jana of House al-Saqr. Neither expected to ever grace my court, and certainly not in each other’s company.”
“We did not expect it either,” Brand remarked with his mouth forming a thin line.
“But we are grateful for your hospitality,” Jana added.
“Good. I am too old to waste words, so I shall be direct,” the king said. “In fact, my advanced age is the core of the matter. Idisea’s raven is coming for me. If not this winter, then the next, or the one thereafter.”
“Those are sad tidings.” Jana’s face mirrored her words, whereas Brand looked unmoved.
The king did not seem to pay either any heed and continued. “The custom of Thusund of old has been that when the ruler dies, the jarls of all the islands gather to choose the next. Always of the kin born to Eirik Wyrmbane.” Leiknarr touched the strange pendant hanging around his neck. “We are not so different from Adalrik in that regard. Sigvard or Eirik, we all have our heroes.”
Brand’s eye caught the king’s gesture, and his blank expression turned to a frown. “Is that – it cannot be.”
Leiknarr smirked. “Yet it is. Eleven hundred years old. Worn by every king of Thusund. Or ruling queen, for that matter. The first successor to Eirik Wyrmbane was his daughter, after all.” Jana looked from one to the other, a question on her face. “You cannot be expected to know, of course,” the king continued, noticing her expression. “This is Eirik’s trophy taken from his fallen foe. This is the tooth of the dragon he slew.”
“Wyrmbane,” Jana breathed.
“Indeed. It shall pass to my heir, along with the rulership of Thusund. That is one tradition I wish to keep, while I intend to break another.”
“Which is?” asked Brand.
“Rather than keep the jarls waiting until my death, I will have them choose my son at winter solstice. He shall be crowned king while I watch, and I shall my spend final years in peace.”
While Jana stared fascinated at the dragon’s tooth, Brand kept the king’s gaze. “That seems sensible. If you have any reason to doubt the jarls would choose differently than you would, once you are gone.”
The king gave a sardonic smile. “You have experience with noblemen in assembly. Would you place trust in them?”
“The jarls are gathering in Dvaros for winter solstice. I intend to have them swear allegiance to my son and have him crowned. That will resolve the issue before it can ever arise, and the succession is safe,” the king explained.
“Your plan is clear, which leaves only one question,” Brand mentioned. “How does this involve us?”
“Your name is Arnarson,” the king pointed out. “A name we treasure nearly as much as that of Eiriksson. I want you to voice your support for my son to the jarls. Let them know that House Arnarson stands with me.”
Brand frowned. “That is all you ask of me?”
“Very well. I shall do so.”
“Good. In return, you and your companion are my guests for solstice.” Leiknarr glanced from Brand to Jana. “Once my son is crowned and the matter of succession dealt with, one of my ships will take you where you wish to go.”
“We thank you, Your Majesty,” Jana said.
“I am tired. Leave me.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“As you wish, my lord king,” Brand mumbled. The pair rose and left the king, who resumed staring into the fire.
As they entered the corridors, Jana took Brand’s arm once he had tied his sword around his waist again. “Would you take me for a stroll outside, perhaps on the walls? I should like some fresh air.”
He glanced at her. “If there is the slightest breeze, it will be freezing cold.”
“I might as well become accustomed to northern winter,” she said with a half-hearted smile.
“If that is what you want.”
Neither of them familiar with the castle, they walked for a while until they found doors that led outside. Apart from the occasional guard keeping watch, none others were on the battlements. Behind them stood the mountain that formed the outer ring of Dvaros. Before them lay the city itself, rolling down the slope.
“You are right, it is freezing.” Jana shivered. She glanced around. “That must be why nobody else is out here.”
“We could have spoken in our quarters.”
“I grew up in a harem, and you learn quickly such a place has no secrets. Chambers such as ours, meant for nobleborn, are exactly where I would have my spies keeping watch. Those chambers are for guests of importance, after all. People worth watching.”
“You are right,” Brand nodded. “We must assume our conversation is not private indoors.”
“What of our meeting with the king? I saw you clench your jaw at his demand. Is it so egregious to you that you must support his son?”
“His demand was not the cause of my consternation, but rather that I suspect he is lying to us.” Brand placed his hands on the wall despite the cold stonework. It was afternoon, but given wintertime, sunset came soon. In the approaching twilight, the carven city reflected the golden-red colours of the waning sun.
“As much as it galls me to admit, I am an exile of dubious honour. My support is as likely to harm as help anyone,” Brand admitted. “I have only one skill that might aid this king. War.”
“You think he desires you to fight for him? Against my father, perhaps?”
“Possibly, but I suspect the threat lies closer to home.” Brand looked at her. “Why the urgency to have his son crowned before he dies? That can only be if King Leiknarr doubts his son has the strength to secure the succession after he is dead. And that can only be in doubt if there is another pretender. Someone to question the prince’s claim.”
“From what I know, King Leiknarr has not only a son, but also a daughter. Same age. Twins.”
“A daughter? To succeed him?”
Brand shrugged. “It is not far-fetched. As you heard, the first successor to Eirik Wyrmbane was his daughter. I think the king fears strife between his children. That one might not accept the other to take the throne.”
“In which case, there will be war.” Jana shivered, perhaps not only from the cold. “And we are caught in the middle.”
“It is only guesswork, but I suspect that is the king’s intentions. He wants me for his war, should it come to that.”
“And what are your thoughts?”
Brand hesitated. “With luck, we might attempt an escape. If we can find a boat to take us away… the king has no power outside Thusund. Once on the mainland, we would be safe.”
She scrutinised his face. “But that is not what you want. I can hear it in your voice. You want to stay.”
He took a deep breath. “If Thusund becomes embroiled in civil war, their ships cannot fight Alcázar, who will have free reign of the sea. They can capture Herbergja and Portesur, raid the coast, and even strike deep into Ealond. The realms will be torn apart between Alcázar attacking from the west and the outlanders from the east.”
“Other enemies. You chose an ill year to visit the realms, I fear.”
“I would have come sooner, but you did not require rescue then,” she retorted with a wry smile. “So we stay. If it comes to it, you will fight for this king.”
“His interest is in me.” Brand cleared his throat. “I am sure in return for my support, he would grant me the favour of sending you away. You could go to Middanhal, where you would be safe.”
Jana shook her head. “No. I have thrown my lot in with you, Adalbrand Arnarson, and for better or worse, I stay by your side.”
He smiled, though with little joy. “Very well.”
“In any case, this remains speculation. We need to gather knowledge,” Jana considered. “I will seek out the noblewomen of the castle. They must be curious to hear of foreign lands. Perhaps in return they can tell me more of our new home.”
“Good idea. I shall seek out new friends myself.”
Jana shivered yet again. “With that settled, let us inside. I will not grow accustomed to this cold in a single day.”
In the harbour, nearly every ship lay moored for winter. Trade would dwindle to a near halt within the next weeks and only resume once spring returned. Except for the many jarls coming for winter solstice, no ships were expected to arrive nor depart. Even so, one crew returned to unmoor their vessel.
The same ship who had carried Brand and Jana to Dvaros set oars into the water. Making the most of the fading day, they left the harbour before the chain to the entrance was raised for the night. It was a late hour to begin their journey, but with a skilled captain at the helm, the darkness would not hinder their departure from Eldrey. With their unplanned visit to Dvaros done, the captain and his crew set sail towards Herbergja as originally intended. With them, they brought the news of the dragonborn Adalbrand and his return to the Seven Realms.