Council in Winter
The feast continued far beyond midnight until even the pale winter morning began to approach. Most found beds before this, including the king and many of the jarls, mindful of the council planned on the following day, even if Leiknarr had not given the reason for the gathering. Brand and Jana also retired early; as the night progressed, more and more eyes looked in her direction, and they were less and less friendly. Bolting the door to their chambers, Brand slept with his sword a few inches out of the scabbard and the hilt by his head.
Morning came without incident; Brand woke after some hours of sleep, soon after dawn. He rose, got dressed, and strapped his sword to his waist. Crossing the parlour, he knocked on the door to Jana’s chamber.
“Is it time to rise?” she asked a few moments later with a confused voice.
“Not as such. You may sleep again. I only require one thing from you.”
“What is it?”
“I am leaving. I need you to bolt the door after me, and only open it for me.”
“What? Brand, I am sure it will be fine.”
“Fine.” Commotion could be heard from within her room.
“Thank you. I shall not be long.”
Brand turned and left. He moved with quick steps through corridors to reach the library, only encountering guards and a few sleepy servants. He only stopped once he stood before Gnupa’s door, knocking rapidly.
“Enter,” came the answer after a while.
Brand did so, finding the Dwarf stoking the fire in his hearth. “Master Gnupa.”
“Lord Adalbrand. I did not expect your company. Certainly not at this hour.”
“I did not stay up late. Nor did you, I take it.”
The Dwarf shook his head, looking towards Brand with empty eyes. “Too old.”
“Yet I imagine you already heard everything that transpired.”
“Such as what? Drunken revelry and loud singing?”
“The jarls know. They know of the invasion coming from Alcázar. They all but accused Lady Jana of being a spy.”
As fire blossomed, Gnupa sat down in his seat. “You have a point?”
“I have not been idle these past weeks. Your king favours his son to succeed him, and some would look favourably on that. But a strong faction favours the daughter instead. The lord Sven might be a good choice in days of peace, but the lady Svana is the stronger candidate in times of war.”
“You have not come simply to tell me what I already know.”
Brand’s jaw became clenched, but he continued. “If your king forces the jarls to choose a successor, many will not support him. They may not join him in war, or worse – while the king is distracted fighting Alcázar, they will turn against him. He cannot afford to force the issue of succession.”
“You presume much, Lord Adalbrand.”
“The opportunity has passed. The jarls know of the invasion. They know the king needs their support, their ships to fight. He must delay until Alcázar has been defeated. To that end, I have a suggestion.”
The Dwarf stroked his beard, reaching just below his neck. “Let it not be said my ears are deaf. Continue.”
“Lady Svana is eager to secure her position and push her brother aside, but there may be one way to change her course. Keep strife from erupting and keep Thusund united while the war lasts. Your king must delay the choice of succession and divide his duties between his children.”
“One child to rule on land, one child to rule at sea,” Brand said. “The lord Sven seeks to make changes to Dvaros and how the realm is governed. The lady Svana seeks war, which will be fought at sea against Alcázar. Given his old age, none would question that the king delegates his duties.”
“Your suggestion assumes that the king, both his children, and all the jarls would agree to this,” Gnupa pointed out.
“You have the king’s ear. If you can sway him, I have little doubt that the jarls will see reason. As for Lady Svana, I will speak to her,” Brand promised.
“I did not realise you held such influence over her,” the Dwarf remarked dryly.
“I do not, but I understand how she thinks. I believe I can find the arguments to convince her.”
Gnupa pulled on his beard. “The king may not agree. I think he fears that time is running out, and he is eager to see the succession handled.”
“If Thusund does not fight united against Alcázar, there may not be any succession.”
“Point taken.” The Dwarf exhaled. “I shall speak with him. If he agrees, Lord Sven will not argue, I think. That leaves Lady Svana to you.”
“Good.” Brand hesitated for a moment. “In light of yesterday’s events, I have a request.”
“Always pressing your luck, Lord Adalbrand. What is it?”
“Jarlinna Herdis all but accused Lady Jana of being a spy last night. Such ill words and ill thoughts will only multiply. She is not safe at this court,” Brand insisted.
The Dwarf raised one hand, signalling his disagreement. “She is under the king’s protection.”
“Master Gnupa, if I am to be of help in the coming days, I must have a clear head. I will be of no service if every moment, I fear for her safety. Even now, every thought in my mind tells me she is in danger, alone, unguarded.” Brand clasped his hands together, a fist inside the other. “It would ease my mind to have my erstwhile companions once more by my side, protecting her in my absence.”
“This again. All the king’s housecarls will protect the lady should need be. Two more will not make a difference.”
“It will to me.” Brand stared at the Dwarf, whose eyes could not reciprocate.
Finally, Gnupa sighed. “They claim that Dwarves are born of stone, but our hearts, at least, are made of flesh. If it holds such importance to you, you shall have your men by your side.”
“Thank you, Master Gnupa,” Brand spoke with relief.
“I will send a carl to fetch them. I know where to find them.”
“I should not be surprised at that. I thank you again.” Brand turned towards the door, but Gnupa’s voice arrested his movement.
“But a word of advice, Lord Adalbrand. If you truly care about Lady Jana’s safety, you should not reveal your vulnerabilities so openly. You might yourself be the greatest threat to her.”
Brand glanced at the Dwarf but gave no reply; instead, he simply left with hasty steps.
Without wasting time, Brand went straight to the inner courtyard that served as a training ring. Despite late nights and early hours, the princess and her chosen housecarls could be found. The soldiers, perhaps due to older age or less sleep, did not seem enthusiastic as such; most of them moved slowly, squinting against the sun. One leaned against his spear, looking half asleep. Only the princess moved with vigour, looking unaffected by last night’s festivities.
“If the king’s daughter wanted you…” The housecarl interrupted himself by coughing, and he gave Brand a tired look. “You know what I mean. Go away.”
“I must speak with Lady Svana,” Brand declared loudly, causing several angry stares to be thrown at him.
“Friend, I will run you through,” the guard threatened in unfriendly manner while rubbing his head.
“Let him pass,” the princess commanded. “Early to see you, Lord Adalbrand, and on the morn of the king’s council. I wonder the cause.”
“May we speak with fewer eyes present?”
Svana ceased her movements with the spear and glanced at her guards. “I suppose these eyes offer little protection anyway. Leave us.” The housecarls did so, some looking grateful. “What brings you before me?” she asked once alone with Brand.
“I am here to advise you on how the crown of Thusund may be yours.”
“That does leave me intrigued.” She planted the blunt end of her spear in the ground and gave Brand a scrutinising look. “But you should not promise more than you can deliver.”
“Currently, the court and jarls are split. Some support you, others support your brother. There is one way to bridge the gap.”
“I am listening.”
“For now, you and your brother must share rule over Thusund,” Brand explained. “Let him sit in Dvaros while you take to the sea with the fleet to fight Alcázar.”
“You acknowledge that the South Cities mean to wage war upon us,” Svana said sharply.
“As you already suspected.”
“And your advice is that I should face the danger while my brother consolidates rule safely back in Dvaros,” she added. “I fail to see the wisdom.”
“If the division in Thusund persists, you will face Alcázar divided. If you agree to this, all the jarls will follow you to battle. The full might of your fleet will swiftly defeat this incursion,” Brand claimed. “You will return to Dvaros as victor. The people, the jarls, and the army will all shout your name in exultation.” As he continued, he did so quietly. “In that moment, who can deny you anything?”
She scratched her cheek. “I will give it consideration,” she said at length. “For now, I have training to complete.”
Brand bowed his head and departed, leaving the princess to her thoughts.
In the afternoon, Jana sat opposite Brand in their quarters. Between them lay a board with strange pieces. It looked like chess, yet rather than both sides being equal in pieces and position, one player held the edge, and the other side stood arrayed in the middle ground. It was a game only played in Thusund and taught to Brand by a courtier; having borrowed the board and pieces, he was teaching it to Jana when someone knocked forcefully on the door.
“Who calls on us?” asked Brand, right hand crossing over to rest on his sword hilt.
“Us, milord,” came Geberic’s voice.
“Good,” Brand said with relief. He almost leapt to his feet, unbolting the door to open it up. Geberic and Glaukos strode in, the former wearing a grin while the latter was more subdued in his expression. The former Queen’s Blade looked at the heavy door and the bolt with approval. “Decent, though I wish we had a few spears for defence.”
“We must make do,” Brand admitted. “Lady Jana, these are my closest companions, Geberic and Glaukos. They have walked through death for me, and I owe my life to them.”
“Milady,” said the greybeard with a bow while Glaukos repeated the gesture.
“Lady Jana of Alcázar,” Brand continued as introduction. “You have something in common with the lady, as she saved my life in Alcázar.”
“We’re grateful,” Geberic told her, “seeing as the captain was foolhardy enough to venture without us.”
“If you had tried to sneak into Alcázar, we would have gotten caught on the first day,” Glaukos growled.
“I have heard much of you both, all of it high praise,” Jana assured them.
“That makes it egregious that the captain has never mentioned you to us, milady,” Geberic replied.
“I have hardly had the opportunity,” Brand protested.
“See what I have had to live with?” Glaukos interjected, glaring at the greybeard.
“Enough,” Brand commanded. “I must go. The king’s council will begin soon, and I wish to observe. You may continue to throw daggers at each other in my absence, as long as you ensure the lady’s safety.”
“One of us should go with you, surely,” Geberic objected. “There’s two of us, after all.”
Brand shook his head. “The threat is not against me. For once.” He glanced at Jana, who seemed on the verge of speaking, but she kept her tongue still. “I will return soon.”
He left with quick steps. “Well,” Geberic said slowly, “if the lady would indulge us… me and Glaukos are dying to know what happened to the captain in Alcázar.”
Jana gave a faint smile. “Let us take a seat, and I shall give you answers.”
The hall in the castle stood filled with people. In one end, the king sat on a large chair, flanked by housecarls. His children were on opposite sides of him, some distance away. The jarls took up the middle of the hall. Some stood by the northern side, closer to the prince, among them Jarl Harald; others, such as Jarlinna Herdis, stood southwards near the princess. The remainder, including Jarl Roar, were dispersed in between. Courtiers lined the walls in between the guards, watching the council to satisfy their curiosity. Brand could be found among them, as could the silrobe, who arrived at court a few days earlier.
“Silence,” the king ordered with frail voice. A housecarl stomped the blunt end of his axe against the floor repeatedly until the noise commanded everyone’s attention. “I will not mince words. We have long suspected that Alcázar was building up their fleet to launch an attack. Now, they feel ready. Once winter eases, we can expect them on our shores.”
Predictably, the dire news caused a murmur among the jarls, even if the rumours had already been rife. The housecarl once more pounded the floor to end the clamour.
“Naturally, we are fortifying our defences. Furthermore, you are all called upon to assemble your ships. We shall defeat this invasion at sea before they even gain a bridgehead. These are our waters,” the king continued with a rising voice, “and these foreign dogs shall regret they ever came!”
Many responded with agreement and enthusiasm. Jarlinna Herdis, by the princess’ side, did not. “Bold words, but cunning matters as much in war as brute strength. Southerners are at this very court, watching our ships and learning our defences,” the jarlinna claimed. By the wall, Brand practically bristled.
“If you speak of the lady Jana, she braved great dangers along with my other guest, Lord Adalbrand Arnarson, to warn us of the impending attack,” the king retorted. “You cast aspersions on those who deserve your gratitude, Herdis Jarl. It reflects poorly on you.”
“The exile,” the jarlinna sneered. “You place great faith in dubious people.”
“The eyes of Thusund are not blind,” Leiknarr roared in sudden anger. “I will not be challenged on this! We have long had reports of hostility in Alcázar. The war is not in doubt. Nor must our response be. Our ships will assemble. We shall meet the sand-lickers at sea before they even have a chance to set foot on our shores.”
“Well spoken, my king,” exclaimed Jarl Harald. Standing near the prince, he stepped forward, approaching Leiknarr but also moving closer to the middle of the hall. “Unlike Herdis Jarl, we are some who stand ready. Ready to rally around a leader in this war. It is clear the choice must be Lord Sven,” he declared loudly.
As could be expected, shouts in favour and opposed resounded through the hall.
“Ridiculous!” Svana strode forward to stand in front of Harald. “I am the better choice to lead us in war!” Behind her, Herdis manoeuvred herself next to the princess.
“Quiet,” shouted Leiknarr with a raspy voice, and they turned their heads towards him. “It is the king’s privilege to lead the ships of Thusund or name someone to take his place. If I desired the opinions of jarls, or my children for that matter, I would ask for it.”
“What of the rumour that you wish to abdicate?” asked Roar suddenly, last of the great jarls to weigh in. “I see the silrobe stands ready to sanctify our oaths of allegiance to a new king.” He glanced at the priestess standing by the wall; she looked expressionless. “Yet it is the jarls’ privilege to choose whom to lead us. You have no right to impose your own will on us in this matter.”
The king sat silent for a while. His hands shook a little until he grasped the armrests of his chair, but his gaze remained firm on the jarls. “That is true,” he finally said. “While I live, I remain king. I have called this council to tell you all of another decision. I am old,” he admitted. “Too old to fight.” He looked at Svana. “Too old to oversee the changes needed to keep Thusund strong.” He looked at Sven. “I have decided to divide my duties between my children. Lady Svana will lead our fleet against Alcázar. Lord Sven will take guardianship of Dvaros, leading new works to expand the city.”
Whispers passed through the hall; the jarls, in particular the three most powerful, exchanged glances. “Lady Svana is the right choice to lead our ships,” Herdis declared.
“Victory is assured by my hand,” the princess proclaimed with confidence.
“Very well,” Roar assented.
Harald looked at the prince, who said nothing. “I will not object to this,” the jarl finally spoke, his fingers fiddling with his golden rings.
“Good.” The king’s breath came wheezing. “Prepare your ships,” he told the assembled jarls. “War will come once winter ends.”
As the council ended and jarls along with courtiers dispersed, a strange mood settled over the castle. Relief that a decision had been made with the support of all the jarls, preparing Thusund for war; anxiety that it was necessary to prepare Thusund for war. With the sun already set by the time the council dissolved, the jarls postponed their return to their own islands until the next day. For this reason, all of them were present on the next morrow when word spread with the haste of a winter storm.
It was the chamber servant that dressed the king each morning who found his master. He called out for the housecarls, but there was nothing they could do. Their weapons protected against enemies of flesh and blood, but not against old age and cold nights. Leiknarr, descendant of Eirik Wyrmbane and king of Thusund, had died in his sleep.
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