North of Middanhal
With the enemy near, the northern gate in Middanhal remained closed for ordinary travellers. For those carrying a pass signed by the lord marshal, it was another matter. The same day as Brand had marched into the capital, a wanderer and a carriage made their departure through Woolgate in the afternoon.
The solitary wanderer moved at a brisk pace, as if he required neither rest nor sleep. He followed the road east towards Theodstan.
As for the carriage, its chosen direction was directly north. Eventually, the roads turned from stone to dirt and finally grass, being little more than trails used by both Men and beasts. The wheels of the carriage had to yield in the end; untying the horses, the travellers continued riding bareback. Taking the lead, Alaric carried a banner with the head of a horse upon it while Glaukos brought up the rear; in between rode Arndis.
“I am not comfortable with this.” Alaric stared at the camp of the Isarn army.
“Too late for us to turn back,” Arndis pointed out. Soldiers wearing black swords as their emblem surrounded the three travellers, who walked on foot; behind them came another warrior, holding the reins of their horses.
“I enjoy our constant defiance of death,” Glaukos remarked, causing the soldiers of Isarn to glance at him anxiously. While the patrol had accepted the trio came in peace, as claimed by the banner, they remained uneasy; those walking behind Alaric and Glaukos had their spears lowered, aimed at their backs.
Soon, they saw the signs of an army that had settled in. Palisades protected the camp, and guard towers maintained strict vigil. As their approach was spied, the sentinels sent an alert. Thus, once they reached the gate, someone of high rank already stood in waiting.
“Where did you find them?” Athelbold asked the leader of the patrol.
“Some miles south of here. They seek the jarl.”
The nobleman glanced at the banner with the head of a horse. “Clearly. I am Athelbold of Isarn,” he declared. “Who are you? I see no signs of allegiance upon you.”
“I am Arndis of House Arnling.” The words caused surprise among the onlookers, but she appeared unfazed. “I seek an audience with the jarl on behalf of my brother.”
“I wonder what you hope to gain, walking into the dragon’s den. I thought you Arnlings were meant to be clever,” Athelbold spoke.
“Do you not honour those who come under Disfara’s banner?” Alaric asked brusquely.
The jarl’s cousin gave the thane an unimpressed look. “Your lady comes in the name of a known exile. I would not speak of honour if I were you.”
“Lady Arndis!” The speaker came with hasty steps through the camp.
“Sir Athelstan,” she replied with a smile. “I am all too pleased to see you.”
“Likewise.” The man in question reached them and gave a bow. “I cannot fathom what has brought you here, but joy is greatest when unexpected.”
“Always swift with silver-coated words,” Arndis spoke; next to her, Glaukos glared at the former knight.
“If you are done, Cousin,” Athelbold interjected, “we should take them into the camp. They wish to see the jarl.”
“What for?” asked Athelstan.
“I bring a proposal from my brother.” Arndis glanced at the surrounding men. “Yet I should prefer to speak it under more private circumstances.”
Hearing Arndis speak of her brother, Athelstan’s smile faltered, replaced briefly by a hurt expression before it vanished as well. “Follow me,” he told them, “and I shall introduce you to Isenhart.”
Standing outside the jarl’s tent, the newcomers attracted attention and curious stares, especially at the lady in their midst. Glaukos and Alaric sent menacing stares in every direction, as if ready to fight the entire army of Isarn. From inside, voices could be heard arguing until Athelstan emerged.
“The jarl will hear you. Only the lady,” he added with an apologetic look to her defenders.
Both of them growled, but Arndis raised a hand to quiet them. “I will be fine. Wait here.” She followed Athelstan inside the tent, leaving her guards to exchange disdainful looks with the thanes of Isarn.
Several men turned their attention towards her. Besides the jarl, his second son Eumund, his cousin Athelbold, and the latter’s son Athelgar, all stared at her. “You are an Arnling, then,” Isenhart remarked with a cup of strong wine in his hands. He sat in a large chair with the bearskin from his hall at Silfrisarn.
Arndis gave a bow. “I am, my lord. I bring a message from my brother.”
The jarl emptied his goblet and grabbed a pitcher to fill it anew. “Be swift. My patience is short.”
She cleared her throat. “The Adalthing convenes in two weeks. The landfrid has taken hold already.”
Her news caused most of the men to exchange looks or mumbled words. As for Isenhart, he simply took another sip of his wine. “So? I have no desire to negotiate with the vermin from Vale. Soon, the city will be mine. No landfrid can save them.”
“Sieges are a costly and dangerous venture,” Arndis began to say. “If you and your allies would join the assembly, my brother is gathering support to have this war ended immediately.”
“Your brother,” Isenhart sneered. “Adalbrand of House Arnling. This upstart from a derelict line would presume to command me?”
“Never, my lord,” Arndis hurried to say. “He proposes an alliance. With your presence at the Adalthing, he may bring this war to swift conclusion. Your lands and title remain safe from retribution, naturally.” Athelstan and Athelbold regarded each other with knowing glances.
“Only cowards would seek to end this war through words,” the jarl proclaimed, slamming his pitcher back on the table. “You think I would fall into your trap so easily? Now that Vale trembles behind his walls, he sends this gilded harlot to lure me in?”
“Brother,” Athelstan barked.
“I assure you, my lord, the landfrid has begun,” Arndis tried to argue. “If you come by your own will, you are guaranteed safe conduct.”
“I will enter Middanhal when the gates are shattered and the city falls before me,” Isenhart vowed, throwing his cup aside with an angry gesture. He rose to his feet with fury on his face. “I will have the head of every southern lord! I will –”
His words came to an abrupt halt, and he fell to the floor. Behind him stood Athelgar, wielding the pitcher of wine as a club. Everyone stared at him with dread. “We were all thinking it.”
“What have you done, boy?” roared his father.
“What had to be done,” Athelstan interjected. He looked down on Isenhart’s body. “He would have us throw ourselves against the walls of Middanhal until every one of us had perished.”
“He is going to wake up,” Athelbold pointed out. “Unless you plan to murder your own brother while he lies helpless, this solves nothing! Your reckless action will only serve to infuriate him further,” he yelled at his son. “Run, boy! When he comes to, he will seek your head.”
“I cannot shed my own blood,” the jarl’s brother conceded. “But I will restrain him if it saves our house.”
“How?” asked Eumund. “We cannot keep him prisoner here. Someone will free him.”
“We take him away,” Athelstan decided. “We make our allies join the assembly, and gods willing, we end the war.” He frowned, looking at Arndis. “How? You never mentioned Brand’s proposal.”
The lady looked from Athelstan to his brother. “A bit late to ask.”
“If we are to do this,” Athelbold swiftly said, “we cannot waste further time. We must get Isenhart out of camp unseen. Not to mention, someone must convince the northern lords to join the Adalthing.”
Athelgar grabbed the bearskin from the jarl’s chair and threw it on top of Isenhart. With a sigh, Eumund bent down. “You have to gag him first.” He did so with the cloth used to clean his sword and began wrapping the animal hide around the jarl.
“I will take him to Middanhal,” Athelstan told his cousin. “It is the only place we can be sure nobody will seek to free him. You remain and persuade the other lords to join the Adalthing.”
“Very well,” Athelbold assented. “I will send for Isenwald. Should something happen to his father,” he considered, looking at the jarl, “he should be here to assume command of the army and receive their fealty.”
“Agreed.” Athelstan looked at his kinsman. “Pray that this works.”
On the floor, Eumund had used the jarl’s own belt to tie around the bearskin, keeping the man inside trapped. “Carrying this out of camp is going to look strange,” he admitted.
“I will distract the thanes,” Athelbold suggested. “Get a cart and throw him on it.” He left with hasty steps.
“I guess I will find a cart,” Athelgar said, following his father out of the tent.
“I am going with you,” Eumund told his uncle even as he hefted one end of his father’s body.
“Nonsense. There is no point in taking the risk.”
“I am not letting you go alone. You can waste time arguing, or you can help me lift.”
Admitting defeat, Athelstan reached down to grab the other end. Arndis stepped out of the way to look out of the tent. “This is not how I imagined our negotiations.”
The soldiers at the gate stared seeing a cart roll through with Athelstan and Eumund on the driver’s seat and a noblewoman with two guards in the back. None of them noticed the rolled-up bearskin on which Arndis sat, and they saw no need to question the jarl’s brother or his son.
A few miles away, the cart could not continue through the rough terrain, and they abandoned it. Glaukos slung the jarl over his shoulder, ignoring the muffled protests, and they moved on, bringing the horses along as well. At length, they reached the carriage that had originally brought Arndis and her companions north. Harnessing the horses, they moved on towards Middanhal.