Ten days after arrival, Brand stood in the courtyard shortly after sunrise. Hitherto, he and Jana had spent their time much like on the first day, mingling at court. Now, he met a housecarl to accompany him outside; for the first time, Brand would be leaving the castle, though without Jana.
“Haki,” Brand said with a nod in greeting.
“Arnarson,” the housecarl replied. “I was told to accompany you. Where are we going?”
Brand raised his eyebrows. “They did not tell you?”
“And if I wanted to go to the harbour and set foot on a ship?” Brand asked.
“I would take you there,” Haki claimed. “Of course, if you think any ship would take you away, you’ve not learned much from your days in Dvaros.”
Brand’s mouth curled up, and he pulled his cloak around him. Another gift from the king. “We are going to the temple.”
“Which one? There’s plenty.”
“Fine.” Haki turned towards the gate. “Let’s go.”
Brand followed the housecarl, and together, they left the castle. Once outside the protective walls, the wind met them on the street, and both pulled their cloaks closer.
“Is it far?”
“Far enough you’ll freeze, not so far you’ll be tired,” Haki told him. He walked without shield, but he carried his axe in the right hand, ready to fight at moment’s notice. “Tell me, landstrider, why do all you carls of the Star fight with swords? Why never the axe?”
Brand smiled briefly. “When we get back, I will be happy to show you.”
“I recall you tried to do that the other day with little luck.”
“I did not want to embarrass you in front of the other housecarls.”
Haki snorted in response, and they continued through the city. “You’re the strangest jarl I’ve met.”
“I am not a jarl.”
“That’s probably why.”
Now it was Brand’s turn to exhale through his nose in a small display of amusement.
“Why Rihimil?” asked Haki. “You hope he will make you good enough to fight with swords? Not enough prayers in the world for that.”
“He is my protector,” Brand explained. “I owe him my gratitude. I may own nothing worth giving the temple, but I can at least offer my prayers.”
Soon, they reached the sanctuary dedicated to the lord of the Divines. “I’ll wait outside,” Haki said while Brand entered.
The blackrobes greeted Brand quietly, leaving him alone. The temple was modest, but a handful of priests and acolytes could be expected to live here. The altar lay with meagre offerings. Most islanders would pay tribute to Disfara, goddess of the sea and protector of Thusund; only drakonians and those with affinity for Rihimil, such as soldiers of the Order, came here.
Brand knelt by the altar and leaned forward until his brow touched the feet of the statue upon it. “Thank you, great Rihimil, that you have safeguarded me through peril. I ask your blessing and protection, as you have granted it so far. I can offer nothing but my praise, and so it shall be yours. From a willing heart, my prayers and praise shall always reach out towards you.”
Brand rose and left the small temple. On the steps outside, Haki awaited him. “You should pray to Disfara,” the housecarl cautioned the dragonborn as they began walking. “If nothing else to thank her for your safe journey to Dvaros.”
“I did so, soon after we arrived,” Brand replied. “Given our rough journey to Thusund, I would not have dreamt of slighting the goddess.”
“Milord! Captain!” a voice called out.
Brand froze in his tracks. He turned around, and his face lit up. “I cannot believe it!” From down the street, Geberic and Glaukos came swiftly. As they reached their lord, they both bowed their heads. For his part, Brand grabbed each of them by the shoulder while Haki looked on bemused. “How?” he asked with incredulity. “I have scarcely been back a fortnight, yet already, you have found me.”
“We waited in Portesur as agreed,” Geberic explained. “Yet when months passed and you didn’t return, we decided to split up. Alaric and Gwen remained there while this barrel of laughs went with me to Herbergja.” He nodded at Glaukos, who merely growled in response. “We figured, you might find your way back to that city instead of Portesur.”
“But how did you find me in Dvaros?” asked Brand.
“Me and Glaukos, we spent our time at the port, hoping for tidings. A week ago or so, a ship comes from Dvaros telling all how someone named Arnarson has come. Not that this fellow knew who that was,” Geberic added with a sly smile at Glaukos, whose growling intensified. “Once I explained the nature of the name, we got on the next ship to Dvaros.”
“It must be the gods that we should find each other again,” Brand considered with a broad smile.
“Pardon me saying it, but that was also me,” Geberic continued. “We tried to get into the castle, but we weren’t exactly welcome.” He glanced demonstratively at Haki. “So I told Glaukos that our good captain is a pious man, and he’s sure to visit the temple sooner or later. We’ve been waiting here for a few days now. Of course, Glaukos wanted to storm the castle on his own, but thankfully, we followed my instinct, not his.”
“It is good you came, captain, for his sake. Another day alone in his company and I would have strangled him.” Nothing about Glaukos’ brusque expression suggested this was a jest.
“Be at ease, my good men,” Brand told them. “You have done well to find me despite the difficulties. I shall certainly be at ease knowing you are by my side.”
Haki cleared his throat, and the other men looked at the housecarl. “I’m touched by this reunion, but my task is to accompany you here and back to the castle. I’m not supposed to pick up strays and bring them home.”
“The choice may not be yours,” Glaukos spoke. His voice was quiet but menacing.
“Be calm,” Brand commanded. “There is some truth in it. I will seek leave to have you both join me at court, but Haki is right. Until that happens, we cannot expect that you will be allowed to enter the castle. You will have to wait.”
Glaukos groaned at hearing this while Geberic glared at the housecarl. “After all the months we’ve despaired, thinking you were dead!” exclaimed the greybeard. “Now this islander tells us off, and we’re to skulk away, leaving you alone?”
“Why don’t you try fighting one of the king’s housecarls in the king’s own city,” Haki suggested with a tight grip on his axe.
“Peace,” Brand declared. “You are both among the finest soldiers I know. You can wait if you must. If you make yourselves known to the blackrobes, I will send word for you.”
“The blackrobes?” Geberic frowned.
“Trust me, there are none to move messages faster than them,” the young dragonborn claimed. He glanced at Haki. “They will know if need be. For now, be patient a little longer.”
“As you command, milord.” Despite the words, Geberic sounded reluctant.
“See you soon, captain.” Glaukos bowed his head, and the four men split up. One pair walked up the mountainside towards the castle, the other walked down, deeper into Dvaros.
Once back at the palace, Brand bid Haki farewell and went straight to the royal library. Inside, he found Jana reading. She looked up as he entered, but he continued past her. “I must speak with the Dwarf. Is he inside?”
“He is,” she confirmed. “What is amiss?”
“I will tell you both if you wish.”
Jana rose to follow Brand, who knocked on the door to the inner room. “Who is there?” asked an old voice from inside.
“Adalbrand and Lady Jana.”
“Please, enter.” They did so, finding the blind librarian. He was reading in his manner, letting his fingers run over carvings in wood to deduce their shape and meaning. He put the rune-stave away. “What brings such illustrious guests to my chamber?”
“I must ask a favour to be granted,” Brand admitted.
“Again? How many temples are you to visit?”
“A favour of a different nature. In town, I had the good fortune to meet two of my old companions. They have served me with honour and loyalty, and they would only add dignity to any court.”
“I see your direction,” Gnupa mumbled.
“I would ask that they be given leave to enter the castle as well.”
“That is not my decision to make,” the Dwarf claimed.
“But you could get the king’s consent,” Brand argued.
“I could ask, but I already know his answer. You may be his guest, but it does not extend to soldiers formerly in your employ.”
“They are not soldiers,” Brand said with gritted teeth. “They are my loyal companions, bound by honour, not by silver.”
“Be that as it may, you are not a lord on these isles,” Gnupa retorted. “You have no claim to a personal guard, and the king’s men already extend their protection to you.”
“Does it extend to Lady Jana as well?” Brand continued. “What happens when spring arrives?” He lowered his voice. “When her father’s armies land, how long until she becomes a target?”
“Brand,” Jana interjected, but it did not stop him.
“It only takes one housecarl to take his anger out on her, or one jarl to consider improving his fortunes by selling her out.”
Gnupa regarded the dragonborn with his blind eyes. “None would dare when she is under the king’s protection. You may not hold it in much regard, but do not expect the king to agree with you.”
“In that case, if the lady’s safety cannot be guaranteed to my satisfaction, the king should not expect me to agree to any of his plans.”
“Brand, it is enough. Let us leave.”
“If you are displeased with the freedom and favours so far shown you, they can certainly be removed,” Gnupa told him with a cool voice.
“Brand.” Jana placed her hand on his arm and began pulling him away. Reluctantly, he followed her out of the room.
Brand walked with angry steps onto the walls of the castle; Jana hurried behind to keep up. The sentinels glanced at them with curiosity, but let them pass until the pair reached a solitary spot where none would hear them.
“Be careful, Brand,” Jana cautioned him. “We are not in a position to make demands nor act in hostile manner against our few friends.”
“We are but pawns to that Dwarf and his master,” Brand all but spat. “I know the true reason for this rejection.” He looked at Jana. “They want to have free hands to turn you over to your father, once the war begins. They will make a sacrifice of you, once I am no longer useful.”
“You cannot know that for sure,” she claimed, though with little conviction. “Besides, how does anger help us in our situation?”
Any words on Brand’s tongue were stifled, and he gave no reply.
“If you intend to stay in Thusund and fight, should war break out, it will be on their terms,” Jana argued. “We cannot make demands,” she reiterated. “We can only seek to make ourselves useful, improving our position thereby.”
He stared at her. “Are you not afraid? We are so vulnerable. At a moment’s notice, we might be thrown in chains and sold to our enemies.”
She returned his look. “Brand, my entire life has been lived under those circumstances. I was sent to Labdah, traded like a horse. Yet on a whim, as the city burned around me, another took my place, and I was sent back. I have made only one decision in my life, which was to help you. It has led me here. A different place, but the same circumstances as always.” She took a deep breath. “You know war far better than I ever will, but you must learn to understand this type of battle. The court of any powerful ruler is just like a battlefield, except you do not fight side by side with others. Everyone will fight anyone if need be. Alliances are temporary, and friendships are frail. We must make ourselves into desirable allies, or we will indeed be nothing but pawns.” She exhaled, and her breath became fog in the cold air.
“Fine,” Brand said at last. “I acknowledge the wisdom in your words. But my only skill lies in battle. Until war breaks out, whether it be within Thusund or against Alcázar, I have nothing to offer.”
“I would not underestimate that your name might open doors otherwise closed,” Jana speculated. “Regardless, the king has already shown interest in you precisely for your prowess in battle. Even if war should lie dormant for months, our good host is already making his preparations, as any wise ruler would. We must make our own.”
“What do you suggest?”
“We have only spoken to edges of the court so far. Courtiers and housecarls,” Jana pointed out. “We must be more aggressive. We should speak with the prince and princess. If there is to be war in Thusund, it will revolve around those two.”
Brand took a slow breath. “Very well. Let us do so.”
Most ships in the harbour of Dvaros were meant for trade. They had ample room for goods below deck and needed only a few hands to sail. Other ships were the long, slender vessels allowing many men to swiftly row across the sea, patrolling the waters. The ship that sailed into harbour near sunset was neither of those.
It had the shape of a longship, but it was far larger. It could hold up towards a hundred warriors with ease, though it only had about a quarter of that number onboard. Despite the fact that a much smaller vessel would have sufficed, this particular ship was expected. Atop flied the banner of Jarlinna Herdis, ruler of the largest island besides Eldrey, the king’s own fief. She was the first of the many jarls of Thusund to arrive for winter solstice in Dvaros, but the people knew that the others were soon to follow.