The bell rang, summoning the inhabitants of the castle to the evening meal. The courtiers gathered in the hall, waiting for the king to arrive; Jana and Brand were among their number, attracting stares. A few housecarls stood nearby; while they also kept their eye on Brand, their expressions denoted caution rather than curiosity. Although Brand had been given the courtesy of remaining armed at court, the housecarls remained vigilant.
The king arrived, flanked by his son and daughter. Aged around thirty, the twins did not look much alike. The princess had her father’s strong nose and brown hair, and her blue eyes held the same intensity as the king’s. Standing a little taller, the prince had straw-coloured hair, soft features made softer by a rich diet, and the blue of his eyes seemed dull.
The king sat first by the middle of the long table, rather than at the end. On either side of him, his children took seat. Only then did the courtiers follow suit, all taking their positions. Brand and Jana, as new arrivals, looked around for empty places until two openings revealed themselves opposite the king and his children. A housecarl made a brusque gesture to indicate this was on purpose; the empty seats were reserved for the king’s new guests.
Sitting down, all eyes briefly flickered past the pair, even those from the other tables in the hall. Jana adjusted the sleeves of her undyed, woollen dress and took her cup with a measured gesture. Had she not been a native of Alcázar, her appearance would have been the same as the servant hurrying to fill mead into her cup. The other women at the table wore colourful dresses of linen or cotton, and all of them had jewellery on their fingers or around their necks. The princess was an exception to this, wearing a tunic like a man would, with a short sword in her belt.
In his common clothing, Brand by her side gave the same impression; only his weapon set him apart from the servants that began to serve the meal. Whereas Jana looked at ease, regardless of her clothing, Brand’s jaw was tense, and he returned the stares from the royal family across the table.
“I bid you welcome, Lord Adalbrand, Lady Jana,” the king said, raising his goblet. Jana and the courtiers mirrored his action; after a little hesitation, so did Brand. Once the king had taken a sip, he gestured at his children. “My son, Lord Sven, and my daughter, Lady Svana. As you can tell, I chose their names to be easy for me to remember.” The king chuckled to himself.
“You make that jest every time, Father,” the prince remarked.
“And I laugh every time,” Leiknarr retorted. “Does the court not find their king amusing?”
“Certainly, Father. I see now why you spared the expenses of a jester,” the princess interjected.
“What does our guests think?” asked the king. “New to our court and impartial. Do we need a jester, Lord Adalbrand? Lady Jana?”
“The last court jester I knew killed his master,” Brand said flatly, prompting a nervous chuckle from a few courtiers, quickly falling silent again.
“I will consider that an argument in my favour,” Leiknarr declared. He looked at Jana.
She cleared her throat. “My father had a court jester for a while. I believe he found the company pleasant. Even freeing at times. To have one servant who will speak the truth to you when others dare not.”
“I have my children for that,” the king laughed.
“You said your father had the jester for a while,” inserted the prince. “What happened?”
“He made a great spectacle of pretending to choke on a chicken bone, and people laughed at his antics,” Jana said. “They continued to laugh as he fell to the floor. By the time the laughter finally died, it became apparent that so had he. His last jest turned out to be that he was not pretending at all, but genuinely asking for help the whole time.”
Scattered amusement could be heard, including from the king.
“Do you remember?” Jana asked Brand. “It was years ago, but I believe you were present as well.”
The prince frowned, looking at the young dragonborn. “You were in Alcázar? Years ago?”
“I spent my youth in that city,” Brand admitted. His expression remained cold.
“Yet we hear your last years have been spent in the realms,” added the princess. Her look at Brand was calculating, like a merchant eyeing a horse for sale. He gave no response.
“Such modesty,” said the king with half a smile. “It is clear this man is no islander, or he would be bragging to the roof of his victories. Taking Middanhal and Tothmor by assault, defeating Isenhart Jarl, and no doubt many more exploits that have yet to reach the thousand isles.”
“I was but the first lieutenant,” Brand pointed out. “Half of the victories where I participated had Sir Richard of Alwood as the commander. The other half was under Sir William of Tothmor.”
“Hah!” came the outburst from Leiknarr. “Listen to this! You would think he is embarrassed!”
“Strange,” Svana considered with her intense eyes on Brand. “Are the inner kingdoms so different from the isles? In Thusund, we would make songs of any man or woman with your deeds under his belt.”
“Songs make it sound as if battles are won by a single warrior’s hand,” Brand argued, keeping the lady’s gaze. “Yet what worth is any commander without his army?”
“Eirik Wyrmbane slew his dragon alone,” the princess countered.
“That was another time,” her brother interjected. “Such days are long gone.”
“Pity that the time of heroes is gone,” remarked Svana.
“Yet fortunate that so is the time of dragons,” Sven retorted.
“Every meal with my children is a blessing,” Leiknarr said. “A shame your father is unlikely to come to Thusund,” he continued, looking at Jana. “Else I might have asked him how he raised his child to have such good manners that mine own lack.”
“Your Majesty has raised children with minds of their own,” Jana mentioned cautiously. “In that respect, you have outdone my father already.”
“Certainly they teach flattery better in Alcázar,” said Svana. Her demeanour did not give the impression that her words were a compliment.
“The merchants are influential in Alcázar, are they not?” asked Sven. Unlike his sister, he seemed genuine in his conversation. “Do they sway the Kabir’s rule in one direction or another?”
“Enough,” declared Leiknarr with a voice that would not be gainsaid. “Our guests are not leaving soon. Let us save some questions for another day.”
The discussion turned elsewhere, with Brand and Jana remaining silent for the rest of the meal.
When the court dispersed after the meal, Jana found her way into the lesser hall of the castle. It served as a gathering place for those living at court to converse and practise certain crafts, in particular in wintertime when cold weather confined people to remain indoors. Bereft of comfortable visits to gardens and the city, the courtiers told stories, shared songs, and entertained each other by the warm fires.
Eyes turned as Jana entered. New arrivals at court always caused a stir, especially during the dull months of winter. Likewise, a native of Alcázar was unusual, and the intrigue only rose when that native turned out to be a princess.
“Do not let me intrude,” she spoke softly. The courtiers had arranged themselves in little groups. Some women were sewing, a few had instruments they plucked, and the remainder seemed engaged in discussions, singing, or poetry, sometimes all three; at least they had been until Jana’s arrival. “I was only curious to hear the renowned skalds of Thusund.”
“In that case, you should take a seat,” a woman suggested, and with a cordial smile, Jana did so.
“But before any may ask others to show their skill, it is custom that you reveal your own first,” another claimed. He had a scar on his cheek and a sly smile to go along with it.
“Do not be silly,” said the woman. “There is no such custom.”
“Our newest companion did not know that,” came the swift retort.
“I would never presume to ask of others what I am unwilling to do,” Jana interjected. “Yet all I know of verse comes from my home, written in the words you call Suthspeech.”
“So be it,” said the scarred man. “Speak, and let us be enthralled by words. And if your words are beyond us, your voice alone must do the work.”
Jana inclined her head. “Very well. I must draw on al-Tayir, the best name in such matters from Alcázar. It is said on the evening of his exile, he sat on the harbour and watched the sunset colour the open seas.” She cleared her throat and spoke once more in her native tongue.
“Wooden horse that ploughs the sea to distant shore
Chasing sunset ‘cross blue field fraught with lost lore
All I know in fading twilight as I leave
I was never nearer sun than on this eve.”
Apart from her two companions sitting nearby, several others had paid her attention. Some seemed motivated by idle curiosity or genuine appreciation, though one man strumming a lyre wore an angry expression. “I am not surprised to find sand-lickers in Herbergja, but I would have thought I’d be spared hearing their tongue in Dvaros!”
“Spare us, Ketil,” said the woman by Jana’s side. “You’re just upset that you won’t be performing at solstice.” A few snickered at this.
“All are welcome in this hall,” added the scarred man. “Perhaps some fresh inspiration would do you well.”
“Fawn if you must,” sneered Ketil. “Any true islander would not care for the verse made by some desert camel.”
“The lady is the king’s guest and deserves the same respect you would show the king,” continued the man with the scar, and his tone of voice held warning. With another sneer, though no further words, Ketil left.
“My apologies for his poor behaviour,” said the woman who had come to Jana’s defence.
“None needed. This is after all a place to forge verse, and I am sure al-Tayir has never been called a desert camel before,” Jana replied coyly, and the scattered laughter helped to relieve the tension in the room. “Now, I believe I have done my part to fulfil your ancient custom, and I should like to hear something in return.”
The others in the hall obliged, spending the next hour with the princess of Alcázar.
Meanwhile, after visiting the shrine to Disfara in the castle, Brand braved the evening cold to enter one of the courtyards in the castle. The sounds of metal clashing reached him, along with cheers and various outbursts. Illuminated only by torchlight, the king’s housecarls practised their weaponry. Shadows danced inside the ring whenever one of them moved to stand in front of a torch, melting together with the raven upon their surcoats.
Brand’s arrival did not disturb the fighting. One man stood with sword against another armed with axe. Both had shields, round in the tradition of Thusund. The sparring continued a while longer. Neither fought with aggression to finish the fight; instead, both attempted feints and different manoeuvres that needed to be trained to perfection before attempted in actual combat.
“You’re the dragonborn,” someone remarked. “Come to see real men fight?”
“I have seen my share of fighting,” Brand replied. “But I have not done much of it lately, and a leg wound has given me some trouble. It seemed prudent to test my abilities in sparring, if any man here would face me in a friendly bout.”
“None have ever come to the thousand islands asking for a fight and been disappointed.” Several laughed, whereas others had grim expressions.
“Let the man have a shield and a weapon,” declared the warrior wielding an axe in one hand. “Let’s see what this Arnarson can do.”
Brand received a blunt sword and a shield and took position. Both warriors eyed their opponent, turning their left, shielded side towards the other man. Brand took a quick step forward, making a tentative thrust quickly denied. The housecarl swept his axe back and forth, forcing Brand backwards. In this manner, they examined each other’s reflexes and the methods of fighting that years of training would have instilled in them.
The axe came high, and Brand raised his shield on instinct, readying his own sword. Yet the housecarl’s weapon came to catch the edge of Brand’s shield inside the nook of the axe head to hook and pull it down. The housecarl followed up by pushing his own shield where Brand was vulnerable. In quick reaction, Brand slammed the pommel of his sword down against the housecarl’s shield, denying the attack. Disentangling his weapon, the islander swiftly retreated one step and stood ready once more.
Later, with the sparring done, Brand returned to his quarters. He found Jana already present in the parlour. She sat on one of the few chairs with a book in her hands, but looked up as he entered. “Master Gnupa allowed me to retrieve one of the books in his library.”
“There is scarce light for reading in here,” Brand remarked. A single candle did its best to combat the darkness inside the chamber.
“Better than waiting for sunrise,” Jana replied with half a smile. “How did you fare?”
“I held my own. I feared worse, given I have scarcely seen battle in a long time.” Brand shrugged and took a seat for himself. “They are dour men, these housecarls, but their disposition was not unfriendly. How did your evening pass?”
“I shall return another night, I think, it was pleasant enough. They showed me cordiality. For now.” The final sentence came scarcely audible.
Brand frowned, turning to look at her. “Why should that change?” he asked abruptly.
Eyeing the walls that might hold hidden ears, Jana spoke quietly. “Once spring comes and winter no longer threatens any ship on the open seas.” She whispered the next words. “Every fallen brother, every father who dies… I can only imagine they will lay the blame at my feet.”
Brand swallowed. “It will not come to that, surely.”
“It will.” Jana rose. “The servants left new clothes for us. Yours are in your chamber. A gift from the king, I believe. After all, we are his guests.” She turned towards her chamber. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Brand replied. After a little while, he entered his own chamber and found as Jana had said. Clothes of linen and leather, dyed in bright colours, along with a proper belt and good boots. Garments befitting courtiers rather than servants. Moving it all onto the floor, Brand went to bed.
Gnupa, the king’s librarian, counsellor, and spymaster, made his way to the royal chambers. Despite the late hour, Leiknarr remained awake. He sat as usual in front of the fire, staring into the flames as if he might divine the future from their dance.
As Gnupa crossed the threshold, he stood in silence. The king took no notice of him until finally, the Dwarf coughed. “Come in, Gnupa. What do you have to tell me?”
The blind servant made his way to an empty chair. “Three jarls have sent word they will not attend the solstice.”
“Any of significance?”
“No, my king. All from the north-western isles. They will do as Jarl Roar does.”
“If he can be swayed, and Harald already supports my son, do you think Herdis will abandon her opposition?” asked Leiknarr, looking at his counsellor.
Gnupa spoke cautiously. “Possibly. Or perhaps we should seek to sway Jarlinna Herdis first. Unlike Jarl Roar, she has interest in the outside world. Should both the jarlinna and Jarl Harald agree to crown your son, I am sure that Jarl Roar would as well.”
The king did not respond for a while. “What of Fortönn?”
“We are sending what supplies we can. Given winter, there is little to spare,” Gnupa admitted. “Most will have to come from Herbergja, including reinforcements. Your letter to the marshal reflects this.”
“The marshal,” Leiknarr muttered. “What of our guests?”
“So far, they have behaved. They have not revealed the circumstances of their arrival, nor the news they carried with them from Alcázar.” Gnupa hesitated. “Yet eventually, people will take note that we are fortifying Fortönn. We cannot keep the invasion a secret much longer.”
“Solstice is two weeks away,” mumbled the king. “Keep it a secret until then. I do not want the jarls thinking I am weak or under threat.”
“Of course, my king.”
“You may leave me.”
“Yes, my king.”