Council in War
The night passed without incident. Lacking siege weaponry, Jarl Harald did not attempt to assault the castle walls. Instead, his men set up barricades to enclose the fortress, keeping it besieged and protecting his sentinels from archers on the walls.
The defining feature of the castle made it both near impossible to assault yet also easy to besiege. Half of it lay hewn into the mountainside, against which Dvaros rested. No path led in or out. Thus, most of the western and northern side did not require any watch, whether from attackers or defenders. Only the two gates that lay south-west and east within relatively close distance, allowed passage.
Inside the castle, wounds were tended to and a double watch set on the walls. The mood was as tense as could be expected. Dvaros was considered impregnable to assault; by virtue of association, most people had extended that same belief to the castle atop the city. None had anticipated a situation such as this, and panic could be felt brewing.
During the morning, Svana called for her foremost jarls to join her for a council. They gathered in the room that had served as her father’s study. The chair, covered in furs to make for a comfortable, warm seat, still stood in front of the hearth. The latter had no fire, anymore. Only cold ashes remained.
Before they had scarcely begun their discussion, Haki approached with Brand and Glaukos in tow. While the other two stayed in the outer room, held back by other housecarls, Haki alone stepped inside.
“What is this?” asked Svana, glancing beyond the guard to see the other men. “Why this disturbance?”
“I thought the dragonborn might offer worthwhile counsel,” Haki admitted. “We all know his reputation.”
“It is not your place to hand out invitations to your queen’s council,” Herdis remarked with a frosty voice. “You forget yourself.”
“How many castles and cities have you taken by storm or siege?” Brand asked with a loud voice. “I may be young, but my experience exceeds my years in this respect.”
“Let him through,” Svana conceded, and Brand entered the room along with Glaukos.
“You need protection even in here?” asked Herdis with a scornful glance towards the former Blade.
“Glaukos defended Tothmor under siege for many days,” Brand explained. “I thought he might have useful knowledge to share.”
“Peace,” declared Roar. “If it were a battle at sea, I would feel different. As it stands, we are short on both warriors and commanders.”
“In any case,” Svana cut through, “I do not plan on a lengthy siege. As we cannot expect to be relieved, we have no choice but to free ourselves.”
“You intend to break through their lines,” Roar said.
“Good,” exclaimed Herdis. “What does our friend from the mainland think of this?” she asked with a challenging look towards Brand.
“If it can be done, it is our best chance,” he admitted.
“We attack tonight, under cover of dark. No need to give them more time to prepare their defences,” Svana declared.
“Agreed,” Roar spoke.
“We must attack from both gates,” Brand claimed.
“And divide our already sparse forces?” Svana objected with a frown.
“It will be too easy for the enemy to direct all reinforcements to the same point of engagement. But if we make a feint, attack one barricade first, that will draw their available forces to that place,” Brand pointed out.
“While our greater force attacks the other barricade,” Herdis finished. “There is wisdom in that,” she conceded with a reluctant voice, “but those to attack first will suffer far greater danger. They must be few in number that the other attack may succeed, all the while they attract the enemy reinforcements.”
“True,” Brand admitted. “And they must hold out until the other battle is won and friendly reinforcements can arrive from that fight.” He took a deep breath, looking at Glaukos. “If armour can be found for me and my comrade, we can lead that attack.”
“Milord,” Glaukos acknowledged.
“I will join as well,” Herdis declared. “Let it not be said that islanders let foreigners bear the brunt of battle when our situation was most dire.”
“Jarl Roar and I will lead the other attack, in that case,” Svana said, to which the jarl nodded. “As soon as twilight ends, we strike.”
“As you command,” Herdis assented.
“Since we do have some hours until then, I suggest we handle another matter,” Roar spoke. He looked at Svana. “We have a little over twenty jarls in the castle, even if some are badly wounded. The silrobe is here. We should elect our queen.”
“Hear, hear,” Herdis agreed.
The princess inclined her head. “Let it be so.”
Hearing movement in the library, Gnupa rose from his inner chamber to stand in the doorway. His blind eyes looked out into the darkness, and he stood a few moments while further sounds reached him. “I should have known it would be you seeking the company of books in this time.”
Jana gave him a surprised look. “You can tell it is me?”
He laughed a little. “Not until you spoke. Forgive the jest. I have few opportunities.”
“All forgiven,” Jana told him with a light-hearted voice that did not match her grave expression. “You heard of yesterday’s events, I take it.”
“Blind, but far from deaf. I feared the succession might cause blows, but never like this. Betrayal and fighting in the very halls of this castle!”
“I wish I could say I was surprised.”
The Dwarf stared towards her. “Labdah?”
“You are well informed.”
“My position requires me to be so.” Gnupa moved with one hand on the wall until his other hand found a chair that he could sit in. “You should not be concerned, Lady Jana. This strife is between islanders. None have reason to harm you.”
“Until my father’s ships arrive and lay waste to these islands, lying undefended because of your internal strife.”
He took a deep breath. “There is a danger of that. But I believe this civil war will be over long before that. Your service in warning the realms has not been forgotten, at least not by me. If the need arises, I should have the resources to see you spirited away.”
“Me, but not my companion, I suspect. He has thrown his lot in with the lady Svana. And now I fear that you expect a swift outcome because you do not think the castle will hold.”
An expression crossed Gnupa’s face. “Our only relief would come from the islands whose jarls are currently captive in here. It could be weeks before they even realise our situation, and much longer before they send forces to our aid. This deep in winter, our food storages will be low.”
“You truly think it will take that long before any aid is sent?”
“If Jarl Harald does what he can to delay news escaping Dvaros, which he will.”
“You speak of the jarl rather than the prince.”
Gnupa gave a shrug. “Lord Sven has his qualities, but he is not the sort to take decisive action. This bears the mark of Jarl Harald, trust me.”
A housecarl hurried into the library. He glanced at Jana before looking at the Dwarf. “Your presence in the courtyard is expected, Master Gnupa.”
“Better not disappoint,” the old librarian said, rising to his feet.
All the inhabitants of the castle had gathered in the courtyard, except for the guards keeping watch. In the middle stood Svana wearing a white dress of linen. Despite the cold, she did not shiver or show any signs of discomfort. Next to her stood the silrobe. The rest of the court and the jarls lined the edges of the yard, watching.
The priestess raised a hand, and a stable boy pulled a horse from the stable into the ring. In a city of stone and ships like Dvaros, horses were rare to find. This stallion had been the king’s own mount, though the beast had not left the stable in several years. Like its master, it had grown old, but it would serve this final purpose.
When Jana and Gnupa arrived, the jarls had already made their positions clear to choose Svana as queen. Only the ritual remained. As the lady and the Dwarf manoeuvred to find a place in the crowd near Brand, the people watched the silrobe take the reins of the horse. In her other hand, she held a knife made from flint.
Deftly, the priestess cut the throat of the horse. Blood sprayed forth to colour the silver threads on her blue robe. As for Svana, her white dress turned red. As the horse fell to the ground, dying, the priestess placed her fingers in the open wound. She used her bloody fingertips to draw a rune upon Svana’s forehead.
“What does the mark on her brow mean?” Jana asked quietly.
“The rune of victory,” Gnupa whispered. One after the other, the jarls approached to have a different mark made on their own brows. “On the others, the rune to mark the steadfast. In this case, those who show fealty,” the Dwarf explained. When all had been marked, the silrobe opened her mouth to exclaim a drawn-out sound, like a wounded bird. “That, I don’t know. It’s something Men invented,” he added with another whisper.
When the strange song, if it could be called thus, had ended, the silrobe took an item from a pocket in her clothes. It was a crude necklace with a large tooth as a pendant. She hung it around Svana’s neck, bowed to the queen, and left the yard.
The jarls and courtiers, meanwhile, crowded around their new ruler. “Wyrmbane, Wyrmbane!” they cried in exaltation.
“She is queen,” Gnupa remarked, though his words were lost in the din of voices.
In order to besiege the castle, Harald’s forces had barricaded the roads outside the gates. In the densely built city of Dvaros, carved from stone, this was an easy feat; most houses lay right against each other, and only a few large roads gave access from the fortress to the city itself.
As the sun sank below the mountain, warriors gathered in the courtyards. To the west, the new queen stood, flanked by Jarl Roar and a few hundred men and women. A small force, mostly consisting of the jarls, their housecarls, and the royal guards. Nearly everyone who could wield a weapon, unless their wounds precluded it; the remainder had assembled in the other courtyard under Jarlinna Herdis. The first attack would come from them; until then, the queen and her warriors waited.
Less than fifty warriors shared looks in the eastern courtyard. Some seemed anxious, others confident. A few betrayed no emotions. Most were carls in Herdis’ retinue, with some royal guards to make up the final numbers. A drakonian and a Hæthian were the final addition. They stood nearest to the gate, but keeping to themselves. Both wore typical chain shirts and round shields with the raven of Thusund; both had swords, one of short length, the other longer and made from strange steel.
A few of the carls directed glances and exchanged questions among themselves seeing Glaukos’ short sword. In the engagement ahead, long spears and axes seemed more useful. On his own head be it, the carls concluded; it was too late now to change anything.
Archers stood on the walls, appearing to be the usual sentinels. They watched the barricades until darkness swallowed the area. Neither side had torches lit to avoid giving any knowledge to the enemy. This gave both an advantage and a disadvantage as the besieged began their sortie. As the gate opened with a rumble, the sound caused some commotion, but the darkness still hid their advance.
The barricades had been hastily erected in make-shift fashion. Stone pulled from nearby houses, barrels and sacks filled with dirt or sand to give weight, an overturned cart, boxes and everything else that would not easily be pushed aside. It was a wall in the sense it kept people back, but it could not be considered proper fortifications. None could walk upon it to defend it the same way that castle walls allowed; instead, those fighting for Sven and Harald stood behind it and on nearby rooftops.
As the assault could no longer remain hidden, the attackers roared and made use of their weapons. Axes began chopping the vulnerable parts of the barricade. Defending archers sent arrows as best they could, though the darkness left little opportunity to aim. On both sides, spears were thrust through gaps, trying to hinder the enemy or even strike someone down.
While most fought to destroy the barricade, others spread out to find alternative paths forward, and a few tried to scale the surrounding houses. In the darkness, chaos reigned as Harald’s men frantically tried to protect the barricades and anticipate where else to defend. More soldiers appeared from the city or drawn from other defences, summoned by the noise of battle or messengers sent swiftly to gather aid.
Finally, the axes accomplished their task. Wood splintered as crates and barrels fell apart, creating a gap wide enough for several people. Commanding the charge, the jarlinna Herdis rushed through as the first, followed by her bravest carls. A wall of spears surrounded them beyond the barricade, keeping them back, and desperate fighting ensued.
Brand had yet to join the fight, which meant Glaukos had not either. As those most eager sought to press through the opening in the defences, the pair kept eyes on the rest of the skirmish. To the west came sounds of battle; the queen and her force had made their own attack. It was now a question of holding on until that other fight was won and reinforcements could be sent to their own position.
Further east, a handful of warriors came rushing forward; they had to be some of Harald’s men, moving to outflank the attackers. With a nod to Glaukos, Brand crossed the street to face them; a few carls followed suit.
Frenzied fighting ensued, man against man. Outnumbered, Brand and those standing by him were pressed back step by step, but they fought for every inch given; they did not seek victory, only to buy time. By the barricade, fierce blood-letting continued as Herdis and her carls refused to yield the small advantage gained. Roars of fury and screams of agony mingled in the night, and the cold winter air became saturated with the smell of blood.
In between parrying spears and dodging axes, Brand glanced west when possible. The night hid the other skirmish, and only distant sounds revealed it was taking place. Turning his attention back on the fight, his sea-steel shattered yet another shield and sent an enemy fleeing in shock.
None had any sense of time in the midst of battle, but the long winter night still held sway as Herdis and her carls finally relented. Pushed back from the barricade, they abandoned their attempt to break through. From the south, Harald’s men poured forth, sensing victory and seizing the advantage; from the east, Brand and a few others still held another contingent at bay.
At last, footsteps and battle cries could be heard from the west. The other skirmish had ended. Relief and excitement poured through the small force that had acted as a distraction against a superior foe. It only lasted until they could make sense of the battle cries, calling the wrong names. Sound arrived before sight, but once the warriors from the western skirmish came out of the darkness, eyes confirmed the dread that soon replaced relief. Harald’s men now swarmed over the cobbled streets, having driven the queen and her forces back into the fortress.
Beset on all sides except to the north, the soldiers of the castle fell back. The jarlinna and her carls, first in the attack, made a swift retreat to the gate. Brand, Glaukos, and a few royal guards covered their flight, still holding the enemy back to the east. Seeing their fellows safely back, the remaining warriors tried to do the same.
It was too late for retreat. Spears on all sides kept the last handful hemmed in. Soon, they would be overwhelmed, and if the gate were not closed, they might storm inside the castle as well.
Standing by the entrance, Herdis looked at the fighting to one side and the courtyard to the other. Finally, she beckoned for those nearby to approach. “Throw your torches,” she yelled with a gesture. Confused, those holding fire did so in the appointed direction, outside where the fighting still took place. “Archers,” Herdis bellowed, “help them get out!”
On the walls, now with light to provide targets, the archers did as commanded. They shot with speed, not always striking where intended, but giving the enemy cause to draw back or seek safety under the walls. With a moment’s respite, Brand flung his shield at the nearest enemy, pulled Glaukos backwards by the shoulder, and the pair stumbled towards the gate. Eager hands met them, yanking both the warriors into the yard while others pushed the gate to a close.
Relief at the narrow escape could be seen in most faces; beyond the walls, Harald’s men retreated from the archers still seeking targets. Yet dismay soon took hold, banishing relief; the sortie had failed.