A Ration of Hope
Jana knocked softly on Brand’s door. Behind her, Glaukos stirred from the floor of the parlour where he had slept; Geberic was keeping watch on the walls, as he had not been in the assault last night.
“Brand? Are you awake?”
“I am,” he replied with a voice that suggested this was a recent development. “You may enter.”
She did so and found him as he sat up in his bed. Except for his armour and outer layers, Brand had slept in his clothes – white cotton with streaks of red on his arms. He rolled up one sleeve to examine a cut.
“That needs to be sewn,” Jana admonished him.
“I cleaned it last night,” he said. A bloody cloth lay next to a bowl of dirty water on the small table.
“The queen sent for you,” Jana continued. “Another council, I take it, now that last night failed.”
“Probably.” Brand stood up and reached for his belt, tying it around the waist.
“We are trapped, are we not? And the rest of the realm does not even know our plight.”
“They will eventually,” he told her while looking at his other small wounds. “When none of the jarls return from Dvaros, the islands will realise what is taking place here.”
“That will take time,” Jana pointed out. “There may be a way to hasten it.”
Brand and Glaukos arrived as the last to the former king’s study. The queen and her two foremost jarls awaited them, exchanging muted greetings. Silence lingered for a moment until Svana spoke. “What do we do next?”
“We prepare to be besieged,” muttered Roar. He had a vicious gash down his face, roughly sewn together. The fight last night had evidently been fierce on both fronts.
“We must ration the food and water,” Herdis added in acknowledgement.
“Beyond that, you must set a sharp watch over the stores, Your Majesty,” Glaukos told the queen. “Two guards at a time. Each time they are relieved, the remaining food and water must be measured.”
“I would not like to think any would deign to steal,” Svana spoke, “but given we have already been betrayed by my brother, I will not be naïve. What else?”
“Every barrel and bowl that can hold water must be placed in the yard. If it rains or snows, we must gather everything,” Glaukos continued.
“Besides our preparations, we must send for aid,” Brand added. “Our only hope comes from reinforcements, and every day counts.”
“We could attempt another attack,” Herdis argued. “Jarl Harald will have sent for reinforcements as well. We have some days before they will arrive to bolster his defences. We should strike again tonight.”
“They will be expecting us,” Roar pointed out. “Our ruse to attack both barricades failed. It will certainly not work a second time.”
“What good will sending a messenger do? Our enemies will not allow any to pass unhindered,” Herdis retorted. “Placing our hope in reinforcements is futile.”
“There is the priestess,” Brand interjected. “If the jarl or Lord Sven have any respect for the gods, they will not detain the silrobe. She can ask for passage back to Bjarghold, and from there she might alert your kinfolk of our plight.”
“Neither the jarl nor the king’s son have so far shown any such respect,” Herdis said. “And surely they will suspect if we suddenly send the priestess out alone.”
“We send her with a flag of truce and terms, asking for their surrender,” Brand explained. “Terms they are sure to reject. Asking the priestess, a silrobe even, to negotiate on our behalf makes perfect sense. Afterwards, she simply asks to return to Bjarghold.”
“That could work,” Roar assented with a thoughtful voice.
“And what if the silrobe decides to inform Harald of our defences?” Herdis asked with gritted teeth.
“She crowned the queen,” Roar protested. “She would not betray us now!”
“She might not be given a choice,” Herdis countered. “we risk losing everything. Another attack is our only hope to break out of this trap!”
“What does our queen say?” Roar inquired, and they all looked at Svana.
It took a moment for her to reply. “We will ask the priestess to help us.”
“What of the attack?” asked Herdis. “Will we not try again?”
The young woman looked from one to another. “We already lost scores of men,” she spoke slowly. “We can hardly defend our walls. We must save our strength.”
Her decision was met with mixed emotions, but none argued against the queen, and the council came to an end.
Outside the castle, Harald’s men kept sharp watch. They kept behind barricades and improvised shelters, avoiding any archers on the walls, but through narrow slits and other such spyholes, they observed the guards on the fortifications and any other activity. Thus, as the western gate opened, it was immediately noticed, and the jarl’s men raised the alarm. Their numbers were bolstered by many warriors from the city, who had sided with the prince for one reason or another; the only story in Dvaros concerning the fateful day after the king’s death was told by Harald, after all.
Weapons ready and eyes scouting in every direction, the defenders of the barricades watched a solitary figure leave through the gate. She wore a blue robe with a horse embroidered in silver thread; the moment she was outside the castle, the great doors were shut.
Inside the courtyard, the queen and her counsellors watched as the priestess left the fortress. She had agreed to carry a message to the kin of the jarls loyal to Svana, once she was safely out of Dvaros – assuming she would be allowed to leave the city.
With the gate closed, the spectacle was at an end. The queen turned back into the castle; around her, servants were busy placing barrels and other suitable receptacles, in case it snowed.
Rumours spread across the castle after the silrobe’s departure, though only a few knew the reason. Some were envious that the priestess had been given a chance to escape – no others had been allowed to leave, out of fear they might reveal knowledge of the defences to Harald. Others wished the silrobe good riddance; having experienced the jarl’s honour when he broke the peace, they would rather trust the castle walls than Harald’s benevolence to keep them safe.
Hours later, shortly past noon, the tense calm shattered when activity outside the walls erupted. Swiftly, the barricades were opened, allowing warriors to pour through the gaps. With them, they carried siege ladders. On the walls, the cry went up to seize arms, and the warning was bellowed inside the fortress. In the halls and rooms, defenders grabbed weapons; most of them already wore armour in anticipation of moments such as this. They ran through the corridors, at times colliding, all of them frantic to reach the walls in time.
The assault was well planned, threatening every section of the walls from east to west. The ladders went up, reinforced at the bottom to keep them from being toppled. In some places, grappling hooks were deployed as well, providing another way of scaling the fortifications and force the guards to spread out further. Archers, as skilled as their counterparts on the walls, harried the defenders trying to rally. Acting swiftly, some of the latter quickly cut the ropes attached to the hooks, and the unlucky attackers were sent tumbling down twenty feet or more, screaming and cursing. Others went for the ladders, hacking away at the top steps to render them unusable.
But there were too many hooks and ladders to disable them all, and soon the attackers made it to the walls. Meanwhile, defenders streamed across the courtyards, rushing up to join the fighting. They clashed on the fortifications. Jarls and carls, islanders against islanders, with a few drakonians and a heathman caught in between.
For the longest moment, the fight seemed equal. The turning point came as the defenders reinforced faster than the attackers. Despite the number of ladders and hooks flung against the walls, Harald’s men could not climb as fast as Svana’s soldiers could run, rushing out of the castle to reach the outer fortifications; meanwhile, those waiting on the ground stood exposed to arrows from the towers. One after the other, each point on the walls held by Harald’s men was retaken, and the attacking warriors slaughtered to a man. Finally, the signal to retreat was given; a drawn-out sound blasted from a horn, and the jarl’s soldiers pulled back.
As the battle ended, Brand returned to his quarters. He walked alone; Glaukos still patrolled the walls, eyeing the barricades, and Geberic had taken a gash down his arm that demanded treatment by skilled hands. Inside, he found Jana seated, though she quickly rose when she saw him. On the small table in the room lay rough bandages, a bowl of water, and a needle with thread.
“You cannot sleep your injuries away,” Jana told him. “I will not let you.”
He removed his helmet; sweat made his hair stick to the leather inside. As before, a range of fresh cuts across his body had joined the old ones, several of which bled anew due to his exertions. “They are all minor,” he claimed.
“Remove your armour, please.”
He did as asked with a little help from her, losing his surcoat and the chain shirt after.
“Did – did this jarl attack us because we sent the priestess to him? Did she betray us?”
“I doubt it. They must have spent yesterday building those ladders. This was already prepared,” Brand considered. His armour gone, he sank into a seat by the table. Dragging the other chair in the room over, Jana sat opposite him, rolling up his sleeves.
“You have come a long way since Alcázar,” Brand remarked with half a smile. “When did you learn this?”
“I watched the desert dwellers tend to your wound,” Jana explained. “You do not recall because you were passed out.” She began cleaning his wounds. “At least all my hours of learning needlework will see some use.”
“How did you get the water?” he asked with a sudden frown.
“I saved my ration.”