Godfrey passed through the royal wing to enter the king’s chambers. He found Brand seated by a small table, breaking his fast. “You sent for me?”
“I did.” Brand motioned for his visitor to sit opposite him. “Have you eaten?”
“I am satiated, yes.”
“Very well.” Brand quenched his thirst with a cup of ale and broke his freshly baked bread apart. “I have summoned Sir William to join me later today that we might discuss strategy. For that purpose, I would ask you all that you know of the outlanders. I imagine you have deeper knowledge than what any scouts could have learned.”
Godfrey smiled. “You would be right.”
“The outlanders have twenty thousand soldiers between Lakon and Tothmor under the leadership of Sikandar. He is their foremost captain and should not be underestimated.”
“Should I expect them to besiege Tothmor?”
“I do not think so.” Godfrey shook his head. “That was their strategy during the first invasion. Slowly building up troops, taking the cities one by one, and consolidate their grip. Which allowed you to beat them back.”
A smile played around the king’s lips, and he grabbed a pickled egg. “I remember. What would you expect then?”
“Another army is already marching north. Thirty thousand or so. They will find it difficult to supply such large numbers in Hæthiod, which is why I imagine either Ingmond or Korndale will be their target.”
Brand nodded slowly. “Both have bountiful farmlands. But they must take Inghold by siege if they wish to progress deeper into Adalrik, or else their supply lines will be vulnerable.”
“Fifty thousand.” Brand took a deep breath. “That will be a greater battle than the realms have known for centuries.”
“And even more may come. Should the Godking empty his lands and leave only behind what he must, another twenty to thirty thousand could be deployed. Whether he can supply such a force for long is another matter.”
“We will not lay idle and wait,” Brand declared. “What of you? Will you be able to continue gathering information?”
“I shall leave today.” Godfrey rose and inclined his head. He turned to leave but arrested himself. “Another thing. I imagine you have not heard yet.”
“Quill died last evening.”
Brand sat, looking stunned. “I had not.”
“I am sorry. We both lost a friend.” Godfrey bowed his head again and left with swift steps.
When William entered the king’s quarters, he found their occupant standing by the window. “My king?”
It took a moment for Brand to turn his head. “You are here.”
“Is this time inopportune?”
“No. The sooner we have this discussion, the better.”
“Very well.” The lord marshal stepped forward. “Are you aware of the situation in Hæthiod?”
“I know of the outlanders. What of our forces?”
“About six thousand infantry and four hundred knights,” William replied. “They have quartered in Ingmond for the winter. As for local troops, about four to five thousand may be raised swiftly from northern Hæthiod.”
“Have them do so and prepare for a siege, should the outlanders choose that course of action. Who did you leave in charge of the army?”
“Sir Ewind, my king.”
“I remember him. Skilled with organisation. Raise him to the rank of marshal in Hæthiod.”
“I will send someone from Middanhal with reinforcements to take command of the army in Ingmond,” Brand continued. “We should expect the jarldom to be invaded.”
“You do not think they will take Tothmor and Polisals as before?”
“It is possible, but I have reason to believe Ingmond will be their destination first.”
“As you say.”
“Fortunately, northern Adalrik is already mustered. I leave it to you that the same happens for southern Adalrik, in particular where Ingmond is concerned. If the jarldom is attacked, we should have all its soldiers conscripted beforehand.”
“I shall see to it.”
“Write to Sir Martel. Have him send all spare troops from Ealond.”
“It shall be done, though given the invasion from Alcázar, we should not expect much,” William cautioned.
“Inform the marshal that we are the priority,” Brand commanded. “We will deal with Alcázar in due time.”
William inclined his head. “Very well. Has my king considered whom should serve as the knight marshal of Adalrik?”
“I have not decided yet. I will let you know once I have. That is all.”
The lord marshal gave a bow and departed.
“The jarl of Vale and his brother are ready at your leisure, my king.”
Brand waved his hand in an inviting gesture. “Send them in.” He was seated once more.
The two noblemen entered, escorted by a kingthane; the elder seemed apprehensive, the younger looked bitter. The guard took position by the door.
“My king.” Valerian bowed while Konstans gave a slight nod in silence.
Brand rose, making his greater height apparent as he looked at the younger brother. “Lord Konstans, my promise of clemency includes you. That is why you are not in chains walking up the scaffold, as you once had me do.”
“I see that your mercy does not extend to gloating.”
“Konstans!” Valerian barked.
“If I am to be punished, do so. Spare me the talk.” Konstans gave the king a challenging look. “Is that why your guard is here?” He motioned towards the kingthane. “To send me tumbling out the window? While I would applaud such a ruthless act, I sense that is not your ploy. So whatever you have planned, I would ask you speed it along.”
While Valerian looked horrified, Brand only smiled. “Surely you recognise my thane, Jerome?”
It took a moment for realisation to enter Konstans’ face. “It is his word against mine. The Adalthing would never convict me based on this.”
Valerian took a step away, turning towards his brother. “But it is true, is it not? I kept hoping it would not be.”
“You may relax, Lord Konstans.” Brand let his smile fade. “My clemency stands. I simply wished for you to know that I am aware of everything you have done. That the man you sent to take my life now guards it with his. Remember how this scheme turned out, should you ever seek to plot against me. I will not be merciful a second time. Lord Valerian,” he continued, looking at the jarl. “I expect your brother to never leave Vale again, nor have the slightest conversation, be it written or spoken, with the lords of these lands. A breach of this will be interpreted as a personal affront by the House of Vale against the House of Adal.”
Valerian gave a deep bow. “I understand, my king.”
“Good. Jerome, you may lead Lord Konstans away. Ensure he is kept with company until his departure from the Citadel.”
“Yes, my king.”
A sneer crossed Konstans’ face, but he kept quiet and turned around to leave with haste.
The jarl, who had watched his brother leave, looked back quickly. “Yes, my king.”
“Do you have everything needed to execute your tasks as master of the treasury?”
“I do, my king. I already have all the books dating back many years.”
“Given we are at war, new taxes must be levied. On all,” the king stressed. “Peasants, merchants, nobility. None must be exempt.”
The jarl swallowed. “Very well.”
“Consult with the King’s Quill –” Brand paused for a moment. “See how war taxes have been levied in the past, find ways to expand and improve them, and present your suggestions to me.”
“I shall, my king.”
It was afternoon when the dragonlord entered the king’s chamber and found his master reading through piles of parchment.
“Theodoric, come closer.” Brand motioned for him to approach and be seated.
“How can I serve?”
Brand dug through the pile, pulled out a piece of parchment, and waved it around. “This is a list of our food stores. Given that we must expect destruction in southern Adalrik, we cannot rely on this year’s harvest alone. I need you to find remedies.”
The jarl nodded. “Eastern Ealond will be our best option. They may ship it north on the Mihtea. Korndale should have stores they can do without.”
“Very well. But explore all options.”
“I shall leave no stone unturned, my king.”
"Furthermore, send a letter to the forces of Alcázar that have invaded us. Tell them the high king of Adalmearc demands their immediate retreat from all our lands, or we shall be forced to wage war upon them until their city is no more."
"It will be sent today, my king."
“Good. How have you found affairs since taking your position?”
“I can make no complaints,” Theodoric spoke. “Whatever his faults, Konstans knew how to rule.”
“There is that, at least. Which brings me to the next matter.” The jarl looked at him expectantly, and Brand continued. “You must set up spies in both Valcaster and Silfrisarn. If Lord Konstans or any from the House of Isarn make the slightest misstep, I wish to be informed immediately.”
“Prudent. I shall make the arrangements, my king.”
"The jarldom of Ingmond is in enemy hands, but the jarl himself is in Middanhal," Brand added. "Take the same measures with him."
"I shall, my king."
“Good. You may leave.”
When the king’s sister arrived, she found him as the jarl of Theodstan had. He looked up from the parchment. “I do not recall sending for you.”
“Fear not, you have not gone mad. I have come of my own volition.”
“Something to drink?” Pouring wine into his own goblet, he extended the pitcher towards her.
“And what need does grant me your company?”
Arndis smiled. “We must discuss the future.”
Brand took a deep sip from his cup. “By all means.”
She sat down opposite him. “Isenwald of Isarn has been writing letters to Valerie of Vale.”
The king frowned. “So?”
“It is a persistent liaison. I believe they will marry, sooner or later.”
“That would be excellent. I can think of no stronger symbol that our civil strife has come to an end,” Brand exclaimed.
“Indeed, here and now it seems beneficial. But in the distant future? This presents a threat.”
“You think this would present some manner of alliance against me?” Brand laughed a little. “You have met the new jarl. He is hardly one to start an insurrection. He is nothing like his father, thank the gods.”
“And his son might take after the grandfather rather than the father,” Arndis retorted. “And through his mother, said son will have close ties to Vale. If the two most powerful jarls work together, they will control the Adalthing.”
“I cannot forbid this marriage,” Brand pointed out. “And if I seek to pressure either Isarn or Vale, they may turn on me already now, not in thirty years.”
“Of course not. We must counter this with an alliance of our own.”
“Sadly, neither of the jarls have eligible daughters.” The king smiled sardonically.
“No, but Isarn has a brother.”
Brand stared at her. “You jest.”
“Hardly. The mines of Isarn provide the realm with Nordsteel. It is the only source,” Arndis pointed out. “It has made Isarn a formidable fighting force since the foundation of this realm, and we should ensure they are loyal beyond any doubt.”
“I already pardoned those traitors and even restored their ranks!” Brand exclaimed forcefully, almost spitting wine. “Now I am to give my own sister to one of these honourless dogs?”
“A terrible sacrifice for you,” Arndis remarked coldly, emphasising the last word.
The anger on his face subsided, and placing his goblet on the table, he stood up. “I see your point. But how can you even stomach the thought of marrying Eumund?”
She rose as well. “Because I am not a child, and I accept my responsibility. With Isarn tied to our house, the North is certain to remain loyal.”
“Anyone but them!” Brand stared at her. “There are countless alliances we could make. Korndale lacks a queen.”
“You need support from within Adalrik. You need support in the Adalthing,” Arndis argued.
Brand paced around the room. “How will this reflect upon us? Marrying the king’s sister will be seen as a reward.”
“It will be seen for what it is,” Arndis patiently said. “A strong alliance made by a wise ruler.”
He stopped walking. “I will need time to consider this.”
“Fine. However long it takes you to accept I am right.”
“You have grown headstrong.”
She smiled. “It must run in the family.”
“We will speak of this later.”
“As you wish. But while you contemplate this, lend some thoughts to your own marriage.”
“I have a war that I must prepare the kingdom for, Sister. Marriage can wait.”
“On the contrary. Now is your greatest need for an alliance. Not to mention, should the worst happen to you, an heir would be welcome sooner rather than later.”
He glared at her. “I am in excellent health. You need not worry. Nor do I plan to charge into battle any time soon.”
“You have seen what happened to this realm when it lacked an heir,” Arndis impressed on him.
“You have someone in mind, I am sure, given how you press the matter.”
“Queen Svana would be an excellent choice. It would reinforce the natural alliance between Adalrik and Thusund.”
“I will give it some thought.” He turned to look out of his window.
“Brand,” she continued, and her voice softened. “You cannot marry Jana.”
His shoulders became stiff before they relaxed again. “None have suggested that.”
“You placed her in the royal wing, guarded by the kingthanes.”
“She is my oldest friend. She saved my life. She is high in my regard with good reason, and I make no excuses for it.”
“A king has no friends, only allies,” Arndis retorted sternly. “Her father has invaded your vassals.”
“I am aware of the situation.”
“She does not bring an alliance with her, but further enmity.”
“There are even rumours that Alcázar has attacked us because she is here.”
Finally, Brand turned around. “Preposterous! Their invasion has been planned for years.”
“You may know that, but most people do not. And your enemies will nurture the lie that you are harbouring a fugitive, or worse, that you stole her from her father.”
“That does not matter. Jarl Ingmond hates you. The southern landgraves only support you because Jarl Vale does. They will sow dissent to weaken you. Brand, you must keep her at arm’s length or even better, send her home.”
Brand took a deep breath. He parted his lips yet waited a moment before he spoke. “You may leave.”
She looked at him. With an indeterminate expression, she inclined her head and left his chambers.
As daylight faded, Jana walked into Brand’s chambers. He sat on a sofa with a cup of wine in his hand. As she appeared, he looked up with a smile, quickly replaced by worry. “Is something amiss?”
“Not where I am concerned,” she reassured him. “But one of your guards remarked that you might have need of company.”
“They have some nerve.” He let out his breath. “But they are not wrong.”
She walked over to take a seat next to him. “What troubles you? Is the crown a heavier burden than you expected?”
“Perhaps, though I feel my time as a commander did well to prepare me.”
“No doubt it did.”
He exhaled slowly once again. “My friend died last evening.”
“I am so sorry.” She moved a little closer, taking his hand in between her own to caress it. “Who?”
“Master Quill. You would have seen him at the assembly. The law keeper.”
“I remember. He did look very poorly.”
“Indeed. I knew he was ill, and yet…” Brand’s voice became unsteady. “I kept thinking I should go to see him, but something always interrupted me. And I thought that tomorrow, I would have another chance. And the day after that.” He turned his head towards her. “How could I have failed to find just a few moments? Now it is too late.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Your time is no longer your own. He spent his life in service to this kingdom. He would have understood.”
“He died thinking I did not care.”
“He knew. Of course he did. You do not hide your thoughts, Brand, and those around you never doubt your affections.”
He grasped her hand tightly and leaned his own head against hers. “I am glad you are here.”
“So am I.”