The Path to Tread
After the failed assault, the defenders remained on edge for hours; dealing with the dead and wounded could leave an obvious opening for another attack. Yet nothing happened, and while they kept watchful, most of them sought sleep.
When they woke, nothing had changed. In fact, there had not been any sign of their enemy since the attack. It was a strange occurrence; hitherto, the besieging forces had constantly been at work trying to open collapsed hallways, sending arrows through gaps and windows, or otherwise made attempts to undermine the defences.
At first, it was considered a welcome reprieve, presumably born from the heavy losses sustained by Harald’s men in their last attack. But as the hours dragged on without the slightest noise made, the defenders grew wary. It seemed a trap to lure them out. Yet if the enemy’s absence were born of preparations for a new assault, perhaps through a forgotten, undefended passage, it would be even worse. In the end, a brave housecarl volunteered to investigate.
He returned half an hour later. First, he had entered the courtyard. He saw no signs of the enemy except the remnants of campfires, splintered shields, and the like. Stepping up to the walls, none hindered his passage. He walked along the fortifications for a while, turned back, and finally ascended one of the towers. His eyes saw no enemies near the fortress; only far down the mountainside, by the harbour, could movement be spotted.
Further discussion ensued, as none could guess the cause of this. Another pressing question was how to seize upon the opportunity. Given how few remained, it would be pointless to take control of the outer fortifications; the queen’s scant forces would never be able to defend them. But perhaps provisions might be found nearby or procured in the city, should they suddenly find themselves under siege again.
While some set to work scavenging supplies, whether food, water, cloth, or anything else, two fleet-footed carls went down the mountain to spy on the harbour and learn what they might.
Standing on the tallest tower of the castle and looking down on the courtyard, activity was so hectic, it resembled an anthill most of all. In contrast, the city beyond the walls lay dead. All the people of Dvaros kept indoors. The only exception was, as before, commotion by the harbour. Ships could be seen sailing into port, disgorging soldiers ashore.
“Someone’s coming!” shouted the guard atop the tower, leaning over the wall to alert those in the yard. “Small party, a score or so!”
“Get inside,” Brand told Jana. They had been turning a splintered cart into firewood – Brand swinging the axe and Jana hauling it inside. “Weapons,” he told Glaukos, giving the axe back to Haki while the heathman fetched their shields leaning against the castle wall. Geberic emerged, having dropped his bundle of wood inside.
“A score’s too few for an attack,” mumbled the greybeard. “They might be here to seek terms.”
“Or it is a trap,” Glaukos pointed out.
“Either way, if there is fighting, we retreat back into the castle,” Brand declared. He looked at Svana as she arrived, having heard the news. The few remaining jarls still on their feet came as well, including Herdis. They clustered around the queen, walking up to the ruined gate to look beyond.
“Should we join them, milord?” asked Geberic.
“We will stay back for now,” Brand muttered. “Until we know what is happening.”
The old sergeant looked up at the sky; it was not yet noon. “Better enjoy the daylight while you can,” he mentioned to Glaukos. “Just in case we’ll be stuck another fortnight inside the dark.” He only received an ambiguous growl as reply.
The tension perfused the air as the moments dragged by. Finally, commotion erupted by the shattered gate, where the queen and jarls stood, but no weapons were drawn. The besieged nobility left the erstwhile protection of the gatehouse to meet the soldiers walking up the street; the latter group was led by the carls sent ahead as scouts.
Moving across the courtyard, Brand and his companions passed through the remnants of the gate. Beyond, they saw the ostensible leader of the delegation coming up the road; he stood tall in heavy armour, signalling wealth and experience in war. The besieged islanders had a variety of reactions seeing him; relief was chief among them, and the jarlinna Herdis went so far as to embrace him.
“Lord Ketill,” Svana greeted him.
The man in question extricated himself from Herdis and gave the queen a bow while grinning. “Svana Kongungsdóttir,” he replied. “Svana Konungr,” he corrected himself, his smile growing wider. “We are not too late.”
“I never doubted for a moment,” Herdis proclaimed, standing nearly as tall beside her husband.
“While your arrival is not a surprise, I wonder how you managed to banish all our enemies from the city,” Svana said.
Ketill’s expression became grave. “If only so, though the truth is, they remain a threat. I should explain from the start,” he suggested. “We received word from the silrobes of the situation – many of the islands did, in fact. We gathered our ships as fast as we could and set sail for Dvaros, but we found the city fortified and heavily guarded.”
“Jarl Harald’s reinforcements arrived first,” Herdis muttered.
“We attempted an assault, but we could not take the harbour walls nor get past the chain,” Ketill explained. “Knowing their provisions would have to be low at this time in winter, we decided to blockade the city.”
“You lay siege to those besieging us,” the queen remarked, causing laughter, either from amusement or simply from relief.
“We landed troops on the island to keep them hemmed in over land as well. Without ships bringing in supplies or fishing boats going out, I knew they could not last long,” Ketil continued.
“And they abandoned the city?”
The nobleman nodded. “We made terms. We allowed them to leave in their ships in exchange for leaving the city in our hands. It would have been better to see your traitorous brother and his rebels slaughtered, but we did not know your situation,” he added. “I did not dare delay, out of fear that you might surrender the castle first.”
“A few more days, we might have,” Svana admitted. “But we must pursue my brother and above all, that villain Harald of Svartheim,” she continued with fervour. “Every day we wait, they will gather their strength.”
“Our ships are at your disposal, Svana Konungr,” replied Ketill. “All the loyal islands have gathered by now.”
“We will spend today making preparations,” Svana declared. “Tomorrow, we set sail!”
While the islanders clamoured in agreement, an unusual pair moved up the road to join the others. Neither of them hailed from Thusund by their appearance and garbs. Both wore great swords, though the woman’s hand leaned on the pommel as she walked, tipping the blade backwards to keep it from scraping against the ground.
“I don’t believe it!” exclaimed Geberic. “Milord, do you see?”
“I see them, though I am astonished as well,” Brand admitted, stepping forward to meet the newcomers. He clasped hands with Gwen, his kinswoman, and inclined his head towards Alaric, who replied with a bow.
“About time you two showed up,” Glaukos told them brusquely. “We sent you a message months ago.”
“And we left Portesur as soon as we could,” Alaric said in defence. “We boarded the first ship that would take us here. But by the time we reached Dvaros, we found a fleet blockading the harbour, refusing us entry. The captain of our vessel decided to turn back, but we convinced these islanders we had come to join their fight to free the city.” The kingthane gave a wry smile. “Not entirely wrong, even if our aim was rather to free someone else than their queen.”
“I’ll be happy if I never set foot on a ship again,” Gwen declared with a disgusted expression. “Constant movement, back and forth, and only blue as far as the eye can see! Revolting.”
“Not everyone found their sea legs,” Alaric explained gently. His eyes looked at the remains of the gate, destroyed by a battering ram many days ago. “Your tale looks more interesting than ours.”
“Come.” Brand nodded towards the castle. “You can talk in our chambers.”
“Do you have anything to eat?” asked Geberic. “I’m starving!”
The castle gardens lay quiet. With the siege at an end, nearly all the inhabitants had hurried away from the keep, most of them to find their families in the city. The exception was Gnupa, the keeper of the royal library and advisor to the throne. He sat with closed eyes and his face towards the bleak winter sun.
“Who is there?” he asked upon hearing footsteps.
“It is I,” Brand announced. “May I disturb you?”
“I can enjoy the fresh air and talk at the same time,” the Dwarf assented.
“Everything has changed since yesterday,” Brand spoke, taking a seat on the bench. “If Godfrey was here, I would ask his advice, but he is not.”
“And I am the next best choice,” Gnupa smiled, turning his white eyes towards Brand.
“You are in his counsel, I take it. I was meant to meet him in Portesur, but that was many months ago. My companions have arrived from that city, yet saw no sign of him,” Brand explained.
“While I have known Godfred for many, many years, I am rarely privy to his thoughts,” the Dwarf admitted. “All he told me was to lend you aid, to consider you part of our circle.”
“He claimed he could have me reinstated as a knight,” Brand revealed. “While I went to Alcázar, he would see my spurs restored, and I could lead the Order’s armies once more. But without word from him, I am unsure what course to take.”
“I have no knowledge of Godfred’s current whereabouts, if that was your thought. I have not heard from him since before your arrival.”
“I assumed as much. I could stay and wait for him,” Brand considered. “I would not be idle in Thusund. The queen has a rebellion to quell, and Alcázar’s fleet could be on the horizon within weeks.”
“Your contribution would be valued, I am sure.”
“The other choice is to travel to the mainland. Either find Godfrey or take matters into my own hands. The outlanders will resume their invasion, from what he told me last year.” The dragonborn looked at the Dwarf. “Do you see reasons to support one over the other?”
Gnupa sat silent for a long moment. “As an islander, I would counsel you to stay. As a Dwarf, I would tell you to go east and destroy the Godking, once and for all!” The final words came with sudden ferocity.
“You know of him? I would not have thought that Thusund paid much heed to the outlanders.”
“The islanders do not, but my people do.” Gnupa exhaled, looking away. “He has been our enemy long, long before we came to these shores and delved the halls of Dvaros. We do not forget.” He turned his blind stare towards Brand once more. “We curse his name for all that he has stolen from us. Home, wealth, and kin.”
“If that is how your people feel, I would have expected to find Dwarves fighting the outlanders even now,” Brand said.
“Yes, one would think so. We have become withdrawn, a scattered people thinking always on the past and never the future,” Gnupa admitted. “But it could change. If news spread of victories against the Godking... perhaps we would finally awaken.”
Brand looked into the Dwarf’s empty eyes. “Thank you for your counsel, Master Gnupa.”
When Brand opened the door to his chambers, he had to look down to find his companions. The furniture had been chopped up for firewood, so they had taken seats on blankets placed on the floor in the manner of Alcázar. Even from afar, lively conversation could be heard with retellings of the siege and all they had experienced. Despite what the merry mood could suggest, nothing but water was in their cups; every other beverage in the castle had been consumed long ago. Glaukos had already drunk more water in an hour than what he had received as his ration yesterday.
“Come, milord, have something to drink!” Geberic urged him, filling a cup from a skin. “This will taste sweeter than any wine from the riverlands, I dare say.”
Brand found a seat on the floor between Jana and Geberic, accepting the water from the latter. “To you,” he said, raising the cup as he looked around the circle. “More steadfast companions could not be found in all the realms and beyond.”
“Hear, hear,” they cheered, drinking as well.
“At the risk of turning the mood sombre,” Alaric spoke a moment later, “what will we do next? The islanders are sure to welcome us, no doubt, should we join their war. But as they depart already tomorrow, we ought to move swiftly to make our preparations.”
“I will not force any to follow me, but I do not intend to stay in Thusund,” Brand declared as all eyes became locked on him. “I should hope that our efforts during the siege have earned us some good will. Enough to secure passage back to the mainland.”
“And then?” asked Alaric.
“That is the question we must discuss,” Brand said. “Given what may lie ahead, I wish to know your thoughts. I will not ask any to follow me into danger with closed eyes.”
“It has worked so far,” Geberic remarked with a sly grin.
“Even so.” Brand raised a hand to quell the amusement. “I can think of different paths to take, and each has its own kind of hardships. Should any of you have concerns, I would rather they be voiced now than later.”
“What paths?” asked Gwen.
“I can think of three options. We sail to Herbergja or Portesur and await news from allies, giving us a better idea of what we may accomplish. Or,” Brand continued, “we continue directly to Hæthiod. We join up with Sir William once more to resume the fight.”
“Better to act than sit around and wait,” Glaukos declared in his brusque fashion.
“I have no interest in war for its own sake,” Alaric spoke, “but I have spent enough time waiting in harbours for news.”
“What is the third option, milord?” asked Geberic.
Brand exhaled, taking his time to reply. “It does not suit me either to sit idle and wait, but last time, my presence in Hæthiod caused an issue. The Order will not follow a knight whose spurs have been taken from him. More than that, the protracted war in Adalrik is costing soldiers and supplies that the Order needs in Hæthiod.”
“You sound as if you have a solution in mind, yet you hesitate to reveal it,” Jana pointed out.
“I can think of only one way, yet it bears the highest risk,” Brand admitted. “The lord protector must be removed. Given his power, this would be exceedingly difficult. And failure would see us executed for high treason.”
His companions sat in silence, digesting the audacious proposal. “How can this be done, my lord?” Alaric finally asked. “Middanhal must be swarming with troops.”
“If we would even get that far,” Geberic added.
“We would need help,” Brand granted. “From any friends or allies we might still have. It would require meticulous planning and flawless execution. I have given some thought as to how it might be done. Conceivably.” He hesitated. “Needless to say, I would not blame any for rejecting the risk.”
Around the circle, Brand’s companions exchanged looks. A highlander, a kingthane, a greybeard, a former Blade, and a princess of Alcázar. They had little in common, yet together they sat on the floor in the keep of Dvaros, contemplating a march on Middanhal without an army.
“I go where you go,” Jana spoke at last.
“I’m here because we’re kin,” Gwen remarked.
“My oath to you has not changed, my lord,” Alaric declared.
“I guess it can’t be worse than the Reach,” Geberic said.
Glaukos shrugged. “Why not? By my count, we should have died three times already. We might as well make it four.”
Svana had remained in the courtyard, directing her people as they made preparations. The swift departure left matters hectic. The castle was in a sad state; not just the damages to the various gates and hallways, but much of the interior had been destroyed during the siege. Some had to be chosen to stay behind, overseeing repairs and garrisoning both castle and city in the queen’s absence. Beyond that, food from the arriving ships would have to be unloaded, else Dvaros might starve within days, but enough provisions had to be kept to allow the fleet to pursue Harald and Sven without delays. This and many other concerns occupied the queen and her attendants as Brand approached.
Seeing noblemen and courtiers swarming her, Brand kept his distance, waiting for a lull in the activities. When it happened, he quickly approached her before someone else could claim her attention. “My lady queen,” he spoke swiftly. “May I speak with you briefly?”
“Adalbrand Arnarson,” she said, turning to face him with a smile. “There will be room for you aboard my own ship. Given your valour during the siege, you have earned such a place.”
“I am honoured,” Brand replied with a short bow. “Yet I came to ask your indulgence.”
She raised her eyebrows. “How so?”
“My intention was always to sail to Herbergja. Now that the siege is over, I wish to resume that journey.”
“You will leave? In the middle of war?”
“I have another war to fight,” Brand declared. “Your battles will be fought at sea, my lady queen, where I have little knowledge to offer. I would be just another sword, and my lady queen has plenty of those.”
“More than your sword, your presence would be welcome,” Svana said. With one hand on the pommel of the sword in her belt, she stood a warrior queen, beautiful and fearsome at the same moment. “The daughter of Eirik Wyrmbane with the son of Sigvard Drakevin,” she proclaimed, making heads turn towards her. “They will be writing songs before we even set sail.”
“And I should wish to hear them,” Brand claimed. “But the eastern realms do not have the same strength as Thusund. My sword will not impact your victory already assured, but it might on the mainland.”
“Disappointing,” she admitted, “but I will not appear ungrateful to a man who fought for my crown, although he is not my subject. If that is your wish, find any ship in the harbour that is bound for Herbergja. Tell the captain that his queen commands him to bear you hence.”
“You have my gratitude, my lady queen.” Brand bowed, and the audience was at an end; already, other people clamoured for the monarch’s attention.
As Brand turned around, he almost ran into Jana, standing only a few steps behind him. “I did not realise you had followed me.”
“I came just now, wondering about the queen’s response.”
“It was favourable,” Brand reassured her. “You had no need to come out simply for that – I would presently have returned to the chambers.”
“Your companions are trading tales after many weeks of separation,” Jana began to explain. “My presence into their circle of familiarity felt like an intrusion.”
“I am sure none of them thought so,” Brand claimed.
“I am sure they did not,” Jana assented, “but I did.” She cleared her throat. “The queen agreed to let us leave?”
“Indeed.” All around them, there was the constant bustle of servants moving supplies back and forth along with the clamour of courtiers surrounding the queen. “Let us seek elsewhere,” Brand suggested, and Jana took his arm as they walked away.
Rather than enter the keep, they crossed the yard to walk onto the fortifications. Given the multitude of people on the ground, none kept watch on the wall itself; they were alone, if not by sight, then at least by sound as the noise of the courtyard grew dim.
“Remember when we first walked here?” Jana smiled as she made mention of the memory, though her expression quickly turned grave. “It was only a few months ago, but it seems like years.”
“Such long months with long days in the dark, and yet so much has happened,” Brand considered. “One king dead and another queen crowned. Countless skirmishes, a rebellion begun and, by my guess, soon to be ended.”
Jana shivered a little, whether from cold or emotions. “I shall be glad to leave this city and never set foot here again. The few happy moments I may have experienced are severely outnumbered by those of an unhappy nature.”
A moment passed before Brand spoke. “You are determined to leave Dvaros, then?”
Jana glanced up at him by her side as they walked. “Of course. I declared as much already.”
“I thought you might consider staying. As dreary as our experience has been so far, Dvaros is perhaps the safest city in the realms.”
“Not if you have already invited the enemies inside your halls,” Jana pointed out.
“Conceded,” Brand said with a wry smile. “But the rebels have been driven out, and I doubt Alcázar’s fleet would dare a direct assault upon the city. The danger lies on the mainland. If not from Alcázar in the west, then the outlanders in the east.”
“My knowledge of warfare is limited,” Jana admitted. “If you say that war will not come to Dvaros, but rather to the coast, I believe you. But it does not give me cause to reconsider.”
Brand ceased walking, and he spoke with lowered voice. “You should. I am an exile. Once I cross the border into Adalrik, the law offers me no protection. And given my intentions, once I reach Middanhal, that same law will see us all executed for treason.”
“Yet you did not seek to further dissuade your other companions,” Jana remarked. “You were swift to accept them joining you.”
“They have followed me for years through many other dangers,” Brand pointed out. “If previous experience did not dissuade them, nothing will.”
“Worse dangers than crossing the desert with scarcely any water? Worse than fleeing the gates of Alcázar with my father’s soldiers in hot pursuit?”
“I will grant you, those experiences rank highly where danger is concerned.” Brand bit his lip. “They are soldiers, and they understand that death is part of war. You are a lady, Jana, and only here because of me. You should never have been involved in all of this.”
“Yet I am,” she replied with a firm voice. “I have no interest in staying in Dvaros as an outcast, wondering each day if news will arrive of your execution. I tied my fate to yours the moment I passed through the orchard door of my father’s palace, Brand. For better or worse.”
He let out his breath. “Very well.”
“When do we leave?”
“We have some time. There is little point trying to find a ship sailing to Herbergja while the queen’s fleet fills the harbour. Once they have sailed, we will find a vessel among those remaining.”
“As you say.”
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.