Days in Darkness
When the siege began, the mood inside the castle had been anxious. Now, retreated into the inner part of the fortress, dread lay in the very air. Every other day or so, Harald’s men attempted to breach someplace new. They attacked the barricades in the entrance halls, or they worked to clear the rubble from the collapsed hallways and open new paths of assault.
Day by day, the situation grew ever more desperate. Many of the defenders had fallen or received severe wounds; those still able to fight had to maintain constant vigil, often repulsing renewed attack by Harald’s men. Pushed back into the castle, none of them saw the sun anymore except when guarding the outer entrances. Inside, day and night could only be measured by the slow burning of candles, providing sparse illumination. And with steadfast progression, the storage of food and water dwindled. Only one thing worked to the advantage of the defenders; their low numbers allowed them to stretch their provisions.
Glaukos sat in the great hall, keeping quiet as the needle pierced his flesh. His armour, serving faithfully until today, had broken at last under heavy axe blows. The rings had burst, allowing the steel edge to cut through leather and fabric and cleave flesh beneath. Killing his enemy, Glaukos had driven the remaining attackers back and guarded the corridor alone for an hour, surrounded by fallen friends and foes alike, before his situation was discovered and relief sent. Thankfully, the axe had struck his left shoulder, leaving his sword arm unhurt.
“Nearly done,” Jana said gently, stitching his skin together. Glaukos growled in acknowledgement. “You remind me of someone,” she continued. “A protector like you, and a man of even fewer words.”
“His name was Selim.”
“He protected you?”
“Is that how he died?”
“Yes.” She breathed rather than spoke the word, though her face only expressed the same weariness as everyone else inside the castle.
“Then he had a good death.”
“That does not make me miss him less.”
“No.” Glaukos cleared his throat. “You sew well.”
“It were better if I fought well. Alas, I was only taught to wield the needle.”
“A fearsome weapon in your hand.”
She smiled, but her expression quickly faltered. “You do not know what it is like, every time the fighting starts. When you can do nothing but wait and hope and pray.”
An expression ran across Glaukos’ face as if chewing. “He will not die. The gods have something else in store for the captain.”
“And what of you, Glaukos of Tothmor?” She finished her sewing.
He carefully moved his shoulder, watching the stitches. They held. “I reckon neither the gods nor Hel want me.” He gave her a wry look and got up, whereas she turned to the next injured warrior, requiring attention.
Holding a thin candle, Brand walked through the library. The flame struggled to illuminate the room, and he walked with slow steps, navigating around the furniture. The unpleasant smell of tallow followed him; any candles made of beeswax had long since been spent.
He reached Gnupa’s room, which lay clad entirely in darkness. “Who is there?” asked the Dwarf.
“You heard me? I did not think I made much noise.”
“Lord Adalbrand. No, you are certainly quiet, but I could smell your candle.”
“Ah. Of course.”
“Please, enter. Find a chair if you can.” The Dwarf’s smile could be heard if not seen.
Using his free hand to fumble his way forward, Brand found a seat. Judging by Gnupa’s voice, he sat opposite. “I suppose you are the one person at court not troubled by our perennial night.”
“You would think so,” Gnupa replied, “but when you cannot see sunlight, it becomes all the more important to feel it on your face.” He learned forward, and the light from Brand’s candle fell upon him, showing stretched skin and hollow cheeks.
“You will get the chance soon, I suspect. If the count of candles is right, it has been seven days since our retreat. Our food situation will not last much longer.”
“It is the queen’s prerogative to share such knowledge,” Gnupa said in tight-lipped fashion.
“You counsel her. You must have given consideration to accepting terms of surrender.”
“I am surprised to hear you speak in such fashion. After all, I am told it was your idea to retreat further into the castle. And you have been a stalwart defender through the siege.”
“I have done what I could,” Brand assented, “but we have run out of time.”
“The queen awaits reinforcements from the loyal islands,” the Dwarf simply said.
“I saw the harbour as we sailed into Dvaros,” he continued. “The watchtowers and the chain that guards the entrance. It would be impossible for any fleet to make a direct assault. There are no reinforcements coming.”
“I suggest you keep that opinion to yourself,” Gnupa warned him.
“Happily. I did not come to quarrel but ask for your advice.”
“You have a strange way of asking.”
“The last days have left me little time to practise courtesy.” Brand wore a haggard expression, suggesting his sleeping hours gave little rest, and his waking hours gave only hardship.
“I will not belittle your contributions to the queen’s cause,” Gnupa said in acknowledgement. “What do you wish to know?”
“When – if the castle surrenders,” Brand began to say. “How may I and my companions expect to be treated?”
The sound of a hand brushing against something soft could be heard; Gnupa was stroking his beard. “Neither Lord Sven nor Jarl Harald are savages or vicious men. You are dragonborn, and you have committed no acts of dishonour.”
“Other than, possibly, choosing the wrong side.”
“Under normal circumstances, I would expect exile for you. A ban forbidding you to ever return to Thusund.”
“Under present circumstances?”
Gnupa exhaled. “You have powerful enemies, Lord Adalbrand. You would make an excellent gift for any seeking to gain favour from them, such as the lord protector of Adalrik. A new king of Thusund, having obtained the throne through bloodshed and seeking to legitimise his rule, would be inclined to strike an alliance with Adalrik. Especially with Alcázar’s fleet on the horizon.”
“It sounds as if you are advising such a future king rather than me.”
Gnupa shrugged. “I counsel the ruler of Thusund, whomever they might be.”
“What counsel would you give me, if my acts have earned me the privilege of asking?”
“Hide. Run. Escape.” The advice was given in calm, but firm fashion.
“Thank you, Master Gnupa.” Brand rose from his seat and walked out, leaving the Dwarf behind in the darkness.
On the inner side of the barricade, a royal guard kept watch. He stood despite the long hours, rather than risk falling asleep from sitting down. He had no light with him, keeping his presence hidden and his eyes alert to any bright flashes from beyond the tangle of stone and wood dividing the hallway.
Commotion and torchlight broke the quiet. Without any pretence of stealth, the jarl’s men attacked the barricade. They hewed the wood with axes, working in sparse illumination to demolish the barricade. Caught off-guard at first, the sentinel yelled for reinforcements and began stabbing with his spear, aiming for light or movement.
His call to arms swiftly became echoed from every direction. All across the castle, wherever a path might be carved or cleared, Harald’s forces attacked.
Roused by the many cries for help, the defenders scattered throughout the castle. None gave commands, deciding who to send where; each remaining warrior ran to defend according to their own impulse.
Glaukos moved to the closest corridor under threat. He stood alone, and the way he held his shield revealed his injured shoulder. Several islanders attacked, thinking him an easy opponent. His short sword felled four. As their bodies filled the floor, causing an obstacle of their own, the remainder retreated.
Brand held the eastern entrance along with Haki, mostly recovered from his wounds. The fighting was furious, but the attackers could not contend with sea-steel in the hands of a knight, and they fell back.
Herdis and her carls held the western corridors. Both sides had losses, but the defenders stood firm and finally repulsed the attack.
Roar and his men stood in the western entrance. Always the weakest point of defence, the attack came fiercest in this place. With valour, the jarl and his remaining sworn men fought, but one by one, they fell. The housecarls first, protecting their lord as long as they could, and finally dying for him. As the last, Roar fell.
With this initial victory, Harald’s forces surged forward. They continued down the corridors now open to them, exploring to find some of them blocked, others deadly. Leaving the entrance hall, they also left daylight behind. Some brought torches, carried in their shield hand, providing light but hampering their fighting. And unlike the defenders, the jarl’s men had not spent the last ten days living in near complete darkness, practising and sparring under such circumstances. As they advanced, the queen and her guards fell upon them.
From different rooms and other hallways, the last royal carls appeared, catching the invaders from all sides. They stood as much chance as mice in an open field, hunted by owls in the night. Quickly, they were slaughtered to a man.
When the din of battle ended and none of his men returned, Harald abandoned the assault. Scores of his soldiers lay dead, and as best he could tell, only a few of the defenders had fallen. The trumpets rang across the castle, calling the retreat back to daylight and open air.
The defenders had won, but none gave cheers. Their situation remained as desperate as before, and each victory came with a price, this time paid by Roar and his carls. Their bodies were retrieved and placed in the great hall. Later, they would be stored in the deepest chambers under the mountain, where the cold might slow the rot – the defenders had no place to bury their dead. For now, the queen showed him the honour of placing his body on the high table of the hall, surrounded by weapons taken from fallen enemies.
“Strange,” Glaukos remarked as he and Brand watched the islanders show Roar their respect.
“They must know we are nearly starved out. Yet this assault suggests impatience.”
“What does that mean, my lord?”
Brand exhaled. “I cannot say. Get some rest.”