Written in Blood
In the small study afforded to him, the captain of the city guard had company.
“Something must be done!” The speaker was an aged man past eighty years; for the last many of those, he had served as the quartermaster of the Order. “These mercenaries will take anything their eyes fall upon, and I have no authority to command our soldiers to fight them!”
“Perhaps that is also best,” Theobald muttered. “I understand your concern,” he quickly added, “but we cannot let it come to blows. That would be a disaster.”
“And how am I to supply Sir William in Hæthiod?” complained the old man. “All the grain and armaments intended for his camp have been seized. I’ll not be able to organise another until harvest.”
“Sir William is capable and will know to get supplies from Hæthiod itself if need be,” the captain argued. “Do not let that trouble you.”
“It’s not simply the supplies. We have a thousand troops trained and armed, ready to march. But without provisions, they’ll not get far. Now, that force will have to stay here in Middanhal, eating more supplies and accomplishing nothing instead of fighting outlanders!”
“Given the hostile army outside our walls, having a thousand extra soldiers is hardly an issue.”
“If these mercenaries aren’t enough to defend us,” sneered the quartermaster, “I’d say they’re not only taking Jarl Vale’s gold, they’re taking him for a fool as well!”
“The mercenaries are another reason why I feel more comfortable having the city guard bolstered,” the captain explained. “If a siege is coming, those sell-swords will be trapped in the city with little to occupy them.”
“Fine,” the quartermaster conceded. “It’s not as if I can do anything about it. But captain, you must speak with the lord protector. It’s our duty at the Citadel to supply the Order on its campaigns. So far, I’ve not fulfilled that duty.” A touch of despair could be heard in his voice.
Theobald sighed. “I will seek another audience. He will have to see me sooner or later.”
As yesterday, Matilde crossed the dragonlord’s wing to enter her husband’s study. Closing the door, she found him seated by his desk, staring into the air.
“You sent for me?” She approached, and still he gave no reply nor react to her presence. Only when she moved in front of him did he finally extend his hand. Looking down, she saw a brief missive held by his finger, which she quickly grabbed and read. “I thought you sent a man to ensure he never returned,” she said, looking up.
“He must have failed,” Konstans considered. “And now, Adalbrand of House Arnling is back.”
“But in Herbergja, far from here. That should hardly warrant such grief.”
“Read the remainder.”
Matilde did so, frowning. “An alliance with Thusund? That is absurd. It must be a false rumour, nothing more. What could that old codger gain from that?”
“King Leiknarr is dead. His daughter sits upon the throne. Things are not as simple as they appear.”
She turned the missive around, looking at it from both sides. “There is no further information to explain what this means,” she pointed out. “Surely your reeve is passing on idle rumours.”
“I doubt it. We must assume that Arnling has some understanding with Thusund. This explains why he disappeared into the Reach,” Konstans contemplated, “only to appear in the West. He has gathered allies.”
“He is an exile,” Matilde countered. “He has nothing to offer Thusund, king or queen.”
The dragonlord looked at his wife. “Nothing yet, but promises could be made. We both know how dangerous he can be if given an army. Should this queen provide that, I can only think of one promise made in return.”
Matilde widened her eyes. “Of course. Why settle for queen of Thusund if you can marry the high king of Adalmearc?”
“Athelstan to the north, Arnling to the west,” Konstans muttered. “We cannot expect to defend Vale, should Adalbrand invade with an army of islanders.”
“What should we do?”
“We must hasten our plans.” He looked at his wife. “As soon as Konstantine arrives, the wedding will take place. And sending them back to Valcaster is no longer an option. If we are to be threatened from two sides, Middanhal is at least defensible.”
Mathilde nodded. “I shall take care of it. But that does not solve the issue of another invading army.”
“I will send emissaries to Dvaros to ascertain the truth of this alliance,” the dragonlord declared. “Perhaps this queen can be swayed to our cause.”
“What of Arnling?”
Konstans exhaled. “The sooner he dies, the better. I will find a way.”
“Never you fear, my prince,” Jorund declared. “The walls of Middanhal are impregnable.”
“Yet the city fell to Sir Adalbrand,” Inghard argued.
“Because he took the defenders unaware,” the Dwarf countered. “There’s sentinels posted every twenty feet on those walls. If those dogs of Isarn make any attempt, we’ll see them miles away.”
“Sir Athelstan is known to be cunning,” the prince retorted. “It was him who taught the craft of war to Sir Adalbrand.”
“No amount of cunning will help,” Jorund claimed. “With so many soldiers on guard, there’s no deceit that can breach those defences. They’ll have to do it the slow and dangerous way, with siege craft.”
“But you said the walls are impregnable,” Egil interjected, “and now you’re saying they can breach them with siege machinery!”
The mercenary took a deep breath. “Yes, they can get on the walls. And if they do so, they’ll be slaughtered. Gods, there’s more soldiers inside the city than outside. We should be so lucky that they’d try. The war would be over soon after.”
“How sure are you of this?” asked Kate.
“Steel and stone,” the Dwarf exclaimed, “I am beset on all sides. I am absolutely certain, young mistress,” he continued. “We are safe. Honestly, the things I endure in this chamber.” He crossed his arms with a mocked look of indignation, looking around the library.
“Yet you come by every day,” Kate pointed out with a smug expression.
“How self-satisfied the young mistress is with that statement,” Jorund declared before his exterior cracked into a grin. “Yet it’s true, there’s no denying it. I enjoy your company, young ones, if for no other reason than it is uncomplicated.”
The prince frowned. “How is it complicated elsewhere?”
“I am a Dwarf.” Jorund shrugged. “The sons and daughters of Men are not keen on my company. And if I go to my own people, they have only disdain for my chosen profession.”
“I didn’t realise people didn’t like Dwarves,” Egil considered. “There’s a fair lot of them here in the Citadel, working the smithy and the mint.”
“Aye, we can work your forges, but nothing more. Once the gates are to be shut, all those Dwarves are made to leave,” Jorund explained. “Back to their quarter in the north-western part of town. I’m the only Dwarf allowed to sleep in this castle, and only because of this.” He thumped the red hawk emblem on his chest.
“But I thought Dwarves wanted it that way,” Kate said. “That’s what Cook told me. They – you prefer to live with others of your kind.”
“It is easier, in some ways,” Jorund admitted. “But we hardly have a choice. The law forbids us from owning property, so we can only live where someone will rent to us. Most places, they don’t.”
“I had no idea,” Inghard exclaimed. “When I am king, I will abolish that law.”
“You are kind, my prince, but you may find it difficult. Many a merchant in this city grows fat, renting homes to my people,” Jorund pointed out. “Not to mention, the nobility prefers to keep us in our place. You will find little support.”
“What of other cities?” asked Kate. “Are there no Dwarven cities?”
“Dvaros was carved by my ancestors.” The old warrior scratched his head where an ear was missing. “And Dvarheim in ancient times, though if any of my people remain there, we don’t know. I hope not.”
The mood grew sombre in tune with Jorund’s voice, and the young people exchanged glances. “I’ve never heard of that place,” Egil remarked.
“It’s not a name often spoken. Dwarves avoid it, for the memory is bitter. And in the tongues of Men, it’s known as Niðheim.” Nothing remained of his usual jovial manner, and Jorund’s eyes became distant.
“We were driven out, by an evil sorcerer. He took our home as his own, for our steel was powerless against his foul magic. A thousand years and five hundred more has passed, and still, we remember.”
“That is sad,” Kate said, her voice reflecting the sentiment. “It reminds me of…” As her eyes glanced over Inghard, her tongue became still.
“The past often is,” Jorund simply said. “And so at solstice, we sing of the day when we might celebrate in the halls of Dvarheim once more. Yet I doubt that day shall come.”
“Could this evil sorcerer still be alive? It’s been so many years.”
The Dwarf shrugged. “Who knows? Such matters are beyond us. But even if dead, Niðheim lies deep in hostile lands, and my people are few and scattered. We’d never be able to take it.”
“What if you had help?” asked Inghard.
“Last time we asked for aid, we received none,” Jorund told the youths. “While I am loath to admit it, we are a bitter people. Ah, enough!” He exhaled. “If I desired gloom in dark halls, I would have stayed in Dvaros. Forgive me, my young friends, I think I’ll take an early night.”
“We should look on Master Quill,” Egil said. “He’s barely eaten today.”
“I’ll fetch something from the kitchens,” Kate suggested.
“I shall retire as well,” Inghard declared.
One by one, they dispersed, each to their own.
The evening had grown late, but the lord protector remained in his study. With candlelight for company, he continued his search through the books stacked around him like unsteady towers. For now, he had abandoned his foray into the kingdom’s ledgers, and instead, he perused his own brought from Valcaster. In particular, he looked at the trade with Alcázar.
He did this by comparing two sets of books. The former had been written by his reeve in Alcázar, stating the value of all goods bought and sold in that distant city. The latter book had been written by the clerks of his own warehouses in Middanhal, allowing for comparisons and the discovery of discrepancies. Before, the jarl of Vale had never personally compared the accounts, leaving such work to his hitherto trusted chamberlain; tonight, he went through book after book.
“Arion,” the jarl mumbled, “what have you done?”
As night fell, the chamberlain to the jarl of Vale made his way through the Citadel. The thanes and Red Hawks on watch saw him leave the wing, but as he was not a prisoner, none stopped him. Once beyond the chambers of the nobility, he encountered none further.
Arion continued for a while, walking through the great castle until he reached a tower. Its only purpose was to provide a vantage point across the city to the south-east. A sentinel stood posted at all times atop the tower, but at its base, the room lay empty. Tonight was an exception; as Arion entered, he found a heavy-set, hooded person waiting.
The other person stepped forward, pulling their hood down. Moonlight streaming in from a window fell upon his face, revealing him to be the alderman.
“We should hurry,” Arion suggested. “If my absence is prolonged, it’ll raise more questions.”
“No need to fret. I have the documents here.” Edwin pulled out a small bundle from inside his cloak. “What of the jarl’s investigations?”
“He’s going through the books I brought from Valcaster. I think I’ve thrown him off the scent.”
“I’m sure.” The alderman’s voice held little conviction. “What else?”
“I’ve not learned much else. He’s not spoken to me.” Arion glanced at the door. “The documents? Time is scarce.”
With a trace of disdain on his face, Edwin gave the pieces of parchment to Arion. The latter moved closer to the window, using the moonlight to read through them. “This looks good,” he admitted. “Your man does excellent work.”
“He does.” The alderman fiddled with a ring on his finger, set with a large emerald. With a few twists, the stone came loose, revealing a pin beneath.
“Wait, is that my name?” Frowning, Arion looked at Edwin, just as the latter pushed his ring with its needle against the chamberlain’s hand. “What – you scratched me!”
“Just a little.” Edwin returned the gemstone to the ring, hiding the pin underneath.
“What is this? Why’s my name on these documents? If you think I’ll be your scapegoat, you’re mad!”
“I figured that would be your reaction. Which is why I won’t leave it in your hands.”
Arion scowled. “I’ll not be your pawn! I’ll tell the jarl everything! He’ll know that you’re pulling all the strings!”
“No, he won’t.”
The chamberlain licked his lips. Sweat appeared on his brow. “What – what is this?”
“A poison so rare, the ingredients cost me several crowns. The recipe comes from the Emerald Tower in Labdah,” Edwin explained while Arion wheezed for breath. “That cost me another fifty crowns just to obtain, but the price has been well worth it.”
“You fiend,” Arion declared hoarsely. The pieces of parchment fell from his grasp.
“I’ve not had opportunity to use it since the old king. I forgot the little pleasure of watching how swiftly it does its work. Such skill, leaving not a single trace.” The alderman watched as the chamberlain’s knees hit the floor. “It is suffocation, you see. Like strangling a man, but not a single mark on his throat.”
Arion gasped to no avail. His eyes bulged, overflowing with fear. He fell to the ground. With a look that grew empty, he expired.
The alderman looked at the body for a few moments before moving into action. Quickly, he collected the fallen pieces of parchment and stuffed them inside Arion’s robe. From an inner pocket, he dug out a golden coin wearing the ship of Alcázar rather than the dragon of Adalrik. It went the same way as the documents. Finally, Edwin grabbed Arion’s arms and began hauling him back to the window. Gasping from exertion, he moved the body bit by bit until it rested against the wall underneath the window. Using all his strength, such as it was, Edwin raised Arion up to lie slumped over the windowsill. With heavy breaths, he took hold of the legs and lifted them as well. His face red, Edwin finally pushed forward until gravity took effect. He barely had time to let go of the chamberlain’s limbs before Arion fell out of the window, landing in the courtyard below. Edwin cast a quick glance down at his work before making his departure, using a piece of embroidered cloth to wipe his brow of sweat.