Council in Blood
An hour after dawn, news of the king’s death had reached everyone in the castle. By the end of the day, the whole city would know. Eventually, ships would carry the news to the other islands and the mainland.
Normally, once the many islands of Thusund heard of the king’s demise, the jarls would set sail and gather in Dvaros within the next few weeks to choose a successor. This time, it would not be needed. Nearly all the jarls had already gathered; even a silrobe was present to sanctify their oaths of fealty to the new ruler. The knowledge that a new king or queen could be chosen immediately caused as much commotion as did the knowledge of the old king’s passing.
Glaukos stood by the door while his three companions broke fast in their quarters; he and Geberic slept in the parlour while Brand and Jana retained their rooms.
“Who will they choose, milord?” asked Geberic, chewing bread.
“Thusund is on the brink of war. They will choose the ruler best suited to lead them through such times,” Brand replied, digging into his meal. Jana swept her spoon through a bowl of porridge with a dismayed look.
“What does that mean for us, captain?” asked Glaukos. “You told us yesterday that you believed the king kept you on hand, should it come to civil war. If the jarls support this new queen, and the king is dead, that leaves us free to leave.”
“It does.” Brand glanced from Glaukos to Jana. “We will have to consider our options.”
“We’ll go where you go, milord, you know that,” Geberic exclaimed.
“I do. The situation is complicated. Thusund, Adalrik, Hæthiod – war has touched many of the realms.” Brand stood up, pacing about a few steps. “For now, let us see the end of this matter.”
“As you say, milord,” Glaukos declared, to which Geberic nodded.
“I will attend the council and return once a decision has been made,” Brand told them. “Once we know the situation has been settled, we will determine our future course.”
“I will go with you,” Glaukos said, adjusting his belt.
“No. The less attention we draw, the better,” Brand pointed out. “Besides, I am not in need of protection.” He glanced in a furtive manner towards Jana. “Wait here for my return.”
“Aye, milord,” Geberic agreed while Glaukos grumbled.
“As you wish,” Jana acquiesced. With a brief nod towards his companions, Brand left for the great hall.
In the course of the morning, the jarls trickled into the great hall. Everyone discussed the same topic, whether with resigned feelings or enthusiasm. The arrival of the silrobe caused further anticipation; already, a horse had been chosen for the ritual slaughter to sanctify the coronation of the next ruler. Thusund had no rules for how many jarls had to be present to elect the next king or queen, but in times of peace, thirty jarls in agreement were considered favourable. In times of war or dire need, a smaller number might do, but fewer than twenty would be less than half the full number and deemed invalid. So the jarls waited, watching one after the other join them.
Two hours after dawn, Svana appeared herself, sending a quick wave of excitement through the crowd. Brand had arrived a little earlier, watching the hall from a corner. Each time another person entered, he conferred with Haki, asking the housecarl if the new arrival were a jarl or not. Slowly, the count rose as the moments floated by. Eighteen jarls, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and so forth.
While they waited, many of the nobility circled around Svana. She stood with a confident smile, surrounded by those already eager to court her favour. Jarlinna Herdis and Jarl Roar both stood nearby, though they talked to each other rather than the princess; as two of the most powerful jarls, their combined support was likely to determine the outcome of the election. As for Jarl Harald, he had yet to appear.
“Should we proceed?” asked Svana with impatience. “There is little reason to delay.”
“We are still missing fifteen or so of the jarls,” Herdis pointed out. “Perhaps it is time to send for them. Tell them the hour is now.”
“Lord Sven should be here as well,” Roar argued. “He deserves the opportunity to be heard.”
“Little good it will do,” Svana claimed with derision.
Conversation continued, which masked the commotion coming from elsewhere in the castle. Only as it increased did awareness grow as well until the sounds could be recognised. Metal and screams.
Everyone with a weapon drew it. Svana, unarmed, pulled a short sword from the scabbard of a housecarl. Some turned to flee deeper into the castle. Others stared at those nearby with distrust, and the remainder looked towards the doors hiding the fight beyond.
Finally, those doors burst open, and battle spilled into the great hall. Housecarls marked with a raven fought their counterparts wearing different emblems, including the bear of Jarl Harald.
Sneering, Svana ran forward, swinging her sword while surrounded by her warriors. Brand looked at the arriving soldiers, at the blade of sea-steel in his hand, and finally at the hallway towards his own chambers. Turning from the battle, he ran in that direction.
Fighting erupted across the castle. The inner parts, delved into the mountainside, still lay untouched; the sensible courtiers fled in that direction. The remainder of the stronghold, including the courtyards, outer halls and corridors, lay splattered with blood. Everything was chaos; the royal housecarls fought to defend the castle, but they could not know friend from foe among the jarls and their retinues. Some joined in the defence, others turned traitor, and the guards only knew the difference when the latter showed their colours, making their assault.
Brand was caught in between. Fighting for neither side, his lack of insignia and drawn blade left him a suspected foe of everyone he met. Battle remained as fierce in this part of the castle as the one he had left. More than once, the beleaguered royal guards turned their axes towards him. Keeping defensive, Brand slipped past them each time without causing hurt and ran onwards.
In the next hallway, Brand ran out of luck. A warrior with a bear emblem blocked his path in the narrow corridor, wielding a spear. Lacking shield, armour, and reach, Brand was forced back. Retreating, he could do nothing but parry the spear tip thrust at him; his cloth tunic would not provide any protection.
In a desperate fight, Brand swung his sword too wide, and it struck the walls of the hallway. Seeing an opening, the housecarl leapt forward to strike the spear in a deep manner. Swiftly, Brand evaded and used his free hand to grab the haft of the spear just below the metal point. Revealing his feint, Brand reassumed control of his sword and struck it against the haft. The sea-steel clove the wood with ease, leaving the spear useless and the housecarl astonished. His short sword was only partly drawn from the scabbard by the time Brand’s blade lay impaled in his chest.
Seizing the now ownerless short sword with his free hand, Brand hurried on. He followed the hallway as it ended in a wider room, already occupied. Two housecarls immediately turned towards him; a third pulled her weapon from the stomach of a fallen royal guard and did likewise. All three wore the bear on their chest, and all three wielded spears.
The carls surrounded Brand on every side except his back. Wielding two blades, he denied their attacks, turning one spear into the path of another, but he could do nothing more. No feints would work here that might allow him to defeat one opponent without the other two seizing the advantage.
Once more, Brand was pushed back. Yet behind him came the royal guards with battle fury, liable to assume all unknown warriors to be enemies, including the dragonborn. Brand glanced over his shoulder for a moment, and immediately, three spears struck at him. He parried all, making them interfere with each other, but his time was running out.
From the opposite corridor leading into the room, Glaukos appeared like a vengeful spirit. Lacking armour, but armed with a short sword and surprise, he fell upon the housecarls. Before they could turn their spears around, he stood among them, slicing throats and shedding blood.
Words were unnecessary. Brand nodded to his companion and quickly exchanged his short sword for a round shield from a fallen royal guard. The pair hurried onwards, down the hallway whence Glaukos had come, while the battle continued to rage in the halls and corridors of the castle.
In their shared chambers, Jana and Geberic remained. The latter stood with a drawn sword, though he kept the tip low; the door was bolted, and he would have a moment’s warning before any might try to force their way through. As for the lady, she sat on one of the few chairs in the room, looking composed. Only Geberic’s knife in her hand showed anything out of the ordinary.
Even through the heavy door, the sounds of battle reached them. Whenever a scream pierced the air, even Jana looked rattled for a moment, and Geberic renewed the grip on his sword. Yet the screams faded, replaced by axes hacking shields and swords striking armour.
“You’re admirably calm, milady,” the old greybeard remarked.
“I went through the same experience last year,” Jana revealed. “Though the fighting did not actually take place inside the palace where I found myself at the time.”
“My father’s mercenaries slaughtered all the leaders and took the city,” she related. “I was fine, of course, but few others were.”
“Not a gentle man, your father.”
“Far from it.”
“You told us of your journey with Lord Adalbrand back to the realms,” Geberic continued, “but you never mentioned how the two of you were already acquainted.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Is that what is on your mind at present?”
“It might prove a good distraction, milady. For you.” He mumbled the next words. “And me.”
“Very well. Brand arrived to Alcázar many years ago, as a squire. He must have been thirteen or so. I was a few years younger,” Jana explained. “I had no siblings, as my mother was too weak to bear more children. And being a daughter, none took interest in me.”
“That seems harsh.”
“My father has at least twenty daughters.” Jana shrugged. “Brand was different from my brothers. He taught me games and learned our speech from me in return. We explored the palace together. Those were the happiest years of my life.”
“I see,” Geberic muttered with his eyes on the door. The shriek of someone dying reached them from beyond the door, making both of them start. “What happened next?”
“Peace was concluded with Labdah, and my father sent two of his children as hostages. Daughters, with the intention we would eventually be wed to the leaders of that city, solidifying an alliance.”
“That didn’t happen, I take it.”
Louder and louder sounds could be heard. Fighting or movement in the corridors nearby. “No, the political situation in Labdah changed quite rapidly.”
A fist pounded on the door to their chambers. “Open up!” shouted Brand from the other side.
With fear turning to relief on his face, Geberic unlocked the door and pulled it open. Brand and Glaukos hurried inside, slamming the door behind them.
Jana’s eyes glanced over Brand’s blood-soaked tunic. “Are you wounded?” she asked with trepidation.
Brand shook his head, throwing his shield to the ground. “Not mine,” he remarked, pulling on the bloody garbs he wore. “You?”
“We are fine,” she reassured him.
“No concern for me, I notice,” Glaukos growled towards Geberic.
“You’ll only get ideas,” the greybeard retorted.
Brand wiped his sword clean and sheathed it. “It is chaos, mayhem. The jarls are slaughtering each other, or at least their carls are.”
“Did someone not accept the election?” Geberic asked.
“It never took place. The prince never showed. Tellingly, neither did Jarl Harald.”
“He acted quickly once he learned the king was dead,” Glaukos said brusquely.
“He did,” Brand acknowledged. “But more jarls, along with their carls, support the lady Svana. It will be many gruesome, bloody hours before we know who has carried the day.”
“We’re not getting involved, then?” Geberic looked from his lord to Glaukos.
“This is not our fight,” Brand declared. “If we join one side and they lose, all of us will be executed.”
“It may be too late for that,” Glaukos remarked with his typical growl. “We have already killed some fighting for the prince, or that jarl, Harald. We have tied our fate to the other side. We should be out there, ensuring it wins.” He looked at the door. “Let me go alone. If it goes wrong, you can disavow me. Say I acted on my own.”
Brand scratched his neck. “I cannot send you out alone to die.” He cleared his throat. “Besides, I will lose all standing if I stay behind while others fight.” Another scream rung through the air, though sounding faint; the fighting was moving elsewhere in the castle.
“I’ll go as well,” Geberic declared. “I can’t remain behind if you leave.”
“No,” Brand said quickly. “I need you here.” He glanced at Jana.
“Stay,” she simply said, meeting his eyes. Her knuckles turned white, grasping the knife in her hand.
Brand looked away. “Let us go,” he told Glaukos. Picking up the raven-crested shield from the floor, he unbolted the door with quick motions, and the pair left to enter the fray once more.
The fighting continued for hours. As the short winter day began to wane, the jarls and soldiers loyal to the prince were pushed back from the halls. Blood continued to be spilled in the courtyards – the attackers formed a last line to hold fast while waiting for reinforcements from the city and harbour.
The defenders proved stronger. Led by Svana, Herdis, and Roar among others, they repelled the attack and retook control of the castle. As hostile reinforcements surged up the mountainside to reach the castle, the gates were shut and barred, denying them entry. Less than half an hour had separated victory from defeat for the attackers; as night swiftly fell, they retreated to the surrounding streets, setting up a strong guard. They had failed to seize the castle, the princess, or the jarls loyal to her; only a siege could now deliver the fortress into their hands.