Old Friendships and New Hostilities
The Mihtea, largest river in Adalmearc, flowed through Middanhal until it reached the sea in the west. Along the way, it passed by Fontaine, serving as the principal route between the two great cities. Ships passed in both directions, carrying goods and people in great numbers. Coldharbour was the eastern-most port available, as further up-stream, the river disappeared under the Weolcan mountains; Herbergja at the river’s mouth was the western-most destination for the small vessels navigating the shallow waters.
One such barge floated peacefully on the stream, approaching the capital of Ealond. As could be expected, traffic was heavy; the many guilds of Fontaine produced a vast quantity of goods to be ferried either east or west. A few vessels continued past the city, but most, including this barge, approached the port. It carried a variety of items. Salt from Hæthiod, a perennial need. Wool from northern Adalrik to be turned into cloth by the weavers of Fontaine. Bronze from Middanhal to be made into statues or tools, dependent on the buyer – with copper coming from Vidrevi and tin from Heohlond, the Dwarves of Middanhal were perfectly located for this trade and had long since perfected the art of creating the alloy.
The barge also carried a handful of passengers, making the journey for their own reasons. Priests and priestesses of different colours, being sent from one temple to another according to requirements. Young men, sent to Fontaine to take up apprenticeship. Women with children, sent for by their husbands to join them.
The man snoring atop a bag of flour did not fit any of those descriptions. He wore no robe, but a leather tunic hardened to serve as cheap armour. A great sword rested by his waist, large enough to be wielded by two hands. He had boarded the vessel in Coldharbour, paying for passage until Fontaine and demanding absolute peace from both the crew and other passengers. For the most part, his request was easily granted; his sullen countenance did not invite company.
Only the children aboard the barge could not help their curiosity towards his sword, set with a jewel in the pommel; while daggers and short blades were not an unusual sight, a weapon such as his drew attention. Several attempts had been made by the children to steal it; given how the warrior spent most of his time, opportunities were ample. Yet even in sleep, he kept one hand on the hilt, either by coincidence or some instinct to be battle-ready.
As the barge entered the harbour and touched against the pier, this finally changed. The small shock sent through the vessel made the warrior turn in his sleep, and his hand fell away from the hilt. While the crew moored the barge, a boy aged around twelve approached the sleeping man quickly, seizing the opportunity. His little fingers closed around the hilt and pulled out the sword.
As he drew the weapon, the boy discovered that the blade ended some inches below the hilt. Next, he dropped the sword and shrieked in surprise as the warrior’s hand shot out, grabbed the child by the collar, and flung him over the railing of the ship. Accompanied by the sound of a body hitting the water, followed soon by a woman’s screams and frantic movement, Damien of Montmer rose from his coarse bed and returned his sword to its scabbard. While the crew hurried to fish the boy out of the water, the former knight disembarked and entered Fontaine.
Like nearly all of Adalmearc, Ealond had been touched by strife in recent years. Fontaine itself had been spared most of the consequences, though. The fighting had taken place far from the city, allowing activities and trade to continue without interruption. Apart from some isolated incidents, such as the execution of Duke Belvoir or disrobing of the Veiled Sister, Fontaine had not experienced upheaval as compared to cities like Middanhal or Tothmor. Robes of different colours, but above all the dark red of the norns, filled the streets along with hawkers of every kind. Crates and barrels were moved around the city to reach the countless workshops with their masters and apprentices, turning raw materials into finished goods. The impressive architecture championed by the guild of engineers continued to dominate and characterise the capital of Ealond, allowing ever higher towers and domes to rise.
Damien pushed his way forward until the colours worn by the surrounding people turned more and more red; he approached the Raven Court, home to the priesthood of the norns. Entering the courtyard, he found scores of people crowding the sacred fountain, around which the temple was built. He glanced around until he spotted guards, looking bored while leaning against the staffs serving as their weapon.
“What is this?” Damien asked, gesturing towards the people. “Did these people pay the tribute, or are they letting every fool in?”
“The new Veiled Sister removed the tribute,” one guard replied. “Any idiot can walk in from the street and drink from the sacred fountain.”
“And here is the result,” Damien said before he began elbowing his way forward. “Make way for a baron, peasants!” he declared; while his words changed little, his elbows had more effect. Many an angry glare was sent his way, but the sight of his sword kept people silent until he could stoop and drink from the sacred fountain, obtaining its blessing. Using the same coarse method as before, Damien got out of the crowd. He glanced back, shaking his head while muttering under his breath, and left the temple again.
Rainier, king of Ealond, sat in his study. A book lay in his lap, but it did not hold the king’s attention. Instead, his eyes gazed out the window on the city beyond. His clothing and appearance were immaculate as always, with his hair and beard neatly trimmed, but his eyes seemed sunken, and despite his young age, the first white hairs had appeared. He had only been king a few years, but he had already suffered his first significant defeat, leaving its mark upon him.
The effect was even worse as it came shortly after his first major victory, and how the two were connected. Unravelling Gaspard of Belvoir’s conspiracy and executing the duke had, for a while, strengthened the king’s position as the undisputed ruler of the land. Until he had moved against Gaspard’s son, who had handily defeated Rainier’s armies and denied any attempts to unseat him as the duke of Belvoir. Humiliated, the king had accepted that the duchy of Belvoir remained in Alois’ hands, rather than risk an exhausting civil war he could not be certain to win. Ever since, none dared to utter the name of Belvoir in the king’s presence, unless they desired exile.
A servant appeared, clearing his throat to cautiously disturb his master’s reverie. “What is it,” muttered the king.
“Master Guilbert has returned. You left instructions to give him immediate audience.”
“I know that,” came the swift rebuke. “Send him in.”
Guilbert, once the envoy serving Gaspard of Belvoir and also his bastard half-brother, entered the study. “Your Majesty.” He gave an elegant bow.
“Success, Your Majesty. I have witnesses and signed documents in abundance. Merchants, guildsmen, and even a captured bandit promised clemency, as long as he says what Your Majesty desires him to say.”
“Good. Assemble the court this afternoon. Spring is upon us. I will not waste another day.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Guilbert gave a deep bow and disappeared.
Through the streets of Fontaine, Damien’s path took him to the second of the great buildings in the city. The Order castle rose with imposing spires, able to hold a garrison of several thousand soldiers. As Damien approached, it was clear to see that the castle held far less. The walls had barely any sentinels, and only a couple of guards stood in front of the gate.
“What’s your business?” asked one of them.
“I am Lord Damien of Montmer,” he replied, “and I was a knight back when your father’s boot first turned your face that way.” He dug out a letter. “The marshal has requested my presence.”
Scowling, the guard took the letter and skimmed through the brief note. “Fine,” he conceded, thrusting the paper back at Damien. “On your way.”
The nobleman snatched the letter and strode past them. He entered the courtyard, watching a handful of pages practising weaponry. With a few muttered comments on their poor footwork, Damien continued past to enter the keep itself.
He walked with certain steps up the floors until he could knock on the marshal’s door. “Enter,” came the command, and Damien did so. Inside, he found Sir Martel. The knight was an imposing sight, taller and stronger than most men with the occasional scar across his dark skin. “Damien of Montmer,” he exclaimed with a smile, and the men embraced.
“I cannot recall how many years it has been,” Damien admitted. “I have memories of our time as pages together, and some from our days as squires, but none after that.”
“We met once after that, if I remember right,” Martel informed him. “When you won the great tournament in Middanhal.”
“Forgive me, I am sure we did, but given the celebrations, I remember little of that day.”
The marshal smiled, though his face quickly turned grave. “My condolences on your father and brother.”
“Thank you. Truth be told, I have given them little thought. But I was grieved to hear of your brother’s death,” Damien declared. “He was the best of knights.”
Martel’s expression darkened briefly. “He was.” He looked away and beckoned towards a pair of chairs. “Have a seat. You must be parched after your journey. Wine?”
Various emotions crossed Damien’s face. “Water for me.”
“As you wish.” Martel poured two cups and passed one along as they sat down. “To the fallen.”
Damien raised his goblet. “To the fallen.” Honour shown to the dead, he placed the cup on the small table between them. “As much as I am pleased to visit you, I do wonder.” He pulled the marshal’s letter out. “How did your missive know to find me in Middanhal, much less that I would pass this way?”
“It was I who ensured it,” Martel admitted. “Once I heard about your father and brother, I took steps to see you restored.”
Damien frowned. “I had not expected you to wield such influence over the Archon.”
“I do not, but I asked the Veiled Sister to intercede on my behalf, and she did so.”
“Been busy, that one,” the nobleman mumbled. “Why go to such trouble? It cannot be simply because we once trained together as pages.”
The marshal exhaled slowly. “Things are not well in Ealond.”
“I thought the war had already ended. The king lets Belvoir keep his title, and Belvoir lets the king keep his head.” Barking laughter issued from Damien.
“I do not trust King Rainier, sad to say,” Martel confessed. “It is the Order’s duty to quell an insurrection such as Duke Belvoir’s, yet my forces were not marshalled. Once he lost the first battles, he would rather make peace with the duke than seek help from the Order.”
“That does sound strange.”
“I can see no other purpose but he wishes to keep us in weakened condition. Most of my troops have been sent east to Adalrik or Hæthiod, and the royal treasury is slow to pay us the taxes we are owed,” Martel revealed. “I have no coin to train more soldiers, and the king is careful not to give me any reason to demand it.”
“Letting him keep the taxes he collects on your behalf,” Damien added. “But you are the marshal. You should storm the palace, break down the doors to the treasury, and take the coin that is yours.”
“I have no doubt you would so that in my place,” the marshal said dryly. “I doubt spilling blood over silver will fortify my position against the king in the long run.”
“That is your flour to grind,” Damien spoke with a shrug, emptying his cup of water. “Do not expect me to intervene. My days as a knight are done. I have a castle with a soft bed and woods nearby for hunting that awaits me.”
“I expected as much. I only desired your return to have allies among the noblemen,” Martel revealed. “Lords who understand what the Order means. Who would set the peace of the realms over the king’s ambitions, whatever they may be. Which reminds me…” The knight rose to open an armoire. He retrieved a great sword and returned to Damien, offering him the sheathed blade. “I had this made for you in anticipation of your arrival.”
“I have a sword,” the nobleman mumbled.
Martel placed the great blade in a precarious position on the small table between them. “This one will actually serve you, should it come to fighting.”
“I have no such intentions,” Damien declared. “I shall wield a spear if there are boars to hunt. For deer, the bow will serve. If I am cold, an axe may cut firewood to keep me warm. But a sword has no use except for war, and I do not intend to ever fight another battle.”
“I do not think you will be given the luxury of choice.”
Damien licked his lips. “I should be on my way. My plan was to leave Fontaine before nightfall.”
“I shall not keep you longer. The king is gathering his court today, and I intend to be there.”
“He has summoned you?”
“No,” Martel admitted, “which makes me all the more curious to attend.”
Damien rose, and the marshal did as well. “It was good to see you. You shall always be welcome at Montmer while I am lord of that spittle of land.” They clasped hands and exchanged a quick embrace in farewell. Hesitating for a moment, Damien finally took the sword from the table and left the room.
In the throne room at the palace, the courtiers stood assembled. Most were nobility from different parts of the realm or envoys sent to represent their families or masters at the royal court. None knew why the king had ordered them to gather; no dignitaries had arrived that might warrant an audience, nor had news reached of any great event, whether fortuitous or calamitous. Those with sharpest eyes had noticed the return of the king’s personal servant, Guilbert from Belvoir, and those with keenest ears knew he had been originally dispatched to Herbergja.
Once the courtiers had been left waiting long enough, Rainier appeared with Guilbert in tow. The king took his throne and let his gaze fall on the assembled court. “As ruler of this land, it is my duty to look after my subjects.” The predicted whispers arose as the courtiers wondered at the king’s intentions. “I never seek war for its own sake, but I must stand prepared to defend Ealond and all its people.” Alarmed looks were exchanged at such words, invoking bloodshed. “It has come to my attention that in the north-western corner of our lands, our people are not safe.” The king gestured at Guilbert, standing at the feet of the throne.
“I hold in my hands sworn statement from half a dozen merchants, all accosted by brigands on the road towards Herbergja, with nothing done to repay their losses or bring the bandits to justice.” Guilbert held a large stack of parchment into the air. “Besides that, I have brought witnesses to His Majesty’s court that can relate how our traders are cheated at the markets in Herbergja, how our guildsmen do not receive fair wages when selling their skills in that city, and worst of all, how robbers have acted with impunity against our poor travellers, safe from retribution!”
Witnesses were brought forward, telling their story to the court according to the charges made by Guilbert. Tales of being cheated in various ways or how the lords of Herbergja had failed in their duties, providing protection on the roads to the city and compensating merchants for any robbery when that protection failed. Lastly, a brigand captured through great difficulty confessed to all of this, including how the islanders had promised to allow their plundering to continue, as long as they only attacked traders from Ealond.
Soon, the court was at an uproar with demands for justice. The king gave a thin smile, promising to meet this demand. From the back of the crowd, Sir Martel watched with a disturbed expression, and he swiftly left.
A cart rumbled out of Fontaine, leaving the city through one of several southern gates. The driver was a simple peddler, leaving with a variety of goods that he might sell to the many villages beyond the city. Leaning against a barrel with his feet over the edge of the cart, Damien lay half-asleep.
“You’re really a baron?” asked the peddler.
“I told you as much,” mumbled the passenger with a drowsy voice.
“I’ve never had a nobleman travelling in the back of my cart. Never even seen something like that.”
“You are welcome for this novel experience.”
“Shouldn’t you have your own carriage, and horses?”
“Then why aren’t you travelling with that?”
“They are at Montmer. If I am to use them, I must first travel hence,” Damien explained with annoyance cutting through the sleepy tone of his voice.
The driver scratched the stubbles on his cheek. “I suppose.”
The baron of Montmer gave a yawn and closed his eyes.