A King and his Knight
As the days became weeks, Middanhal breathed with greater ease. The peace between North and South held, the reign of the king continued without issue or challenge, and with trade to Vidrevi and Heohlond flowing freely, coin and work became more abundant. Rumours of outlanders seemed for now to be merely that, and the mood in the city was carefree to the near point of exuberance.
This held especially true for one tavern in Lowtown. It seemed ordinary in all respects except one; many of Brand’s companions gathered in this place, and merriment followed them. Especially as their number included a bard, full of tales about the new king. This lured many other patrons in, and the proprietor rushed from table to table, aided by his daughter. The latter proved the reason why this particular establishment held such favour, being married to an archer in Brand’s following.
From a chair in the corner, Nicholas watched his wife serve food and drink around the tavern. Next to him, Quentin sorted through the feathers on his arrows, occasionally glancing at Troy performing. “You need not stare,” the second archer said to the first. “You live with her. You can see her all the time.”
“Two years, Quentin. Two years in Hæthiod and the Reach.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Avoiding outlander arrows and spears at every turn.”
“I was present as well.”
“Many times I never thought I’d make it back to my wife.”
“I could think of something worse,” Quentin claimed.
“Coming home to a pregnant wife.”
“How would that –” Nicholas’ expression turned from questioning to annoyed. “Funny.”
“I thought so myself.”
Quentin sighed. “I’ve seen her, we’ve been here for weeks –”
“No, you sour-apple, it’s Glaukos!”
Opposite the room, the stocky Hæthian entered the tavern along with Geberic. The two archers rose and gestured for the newcomers to join them. In the centre of the room, Troy began performing the song of the Dragonheart, which had already found great favour among the clientele.
“Ellen,” Nicholas shouted over the din of the other patrons, “can you find something for our friends to drink?” She motioned an affirmative reply, and he turned his attention back on the others. “Come, have a seat!”
“Another time, I’m not walking two hours through the city just for a mug of ale,” Geberic grumbled.
“Quiet,” Glaukos growled. “It does you good.”
“Some things have not changed,” Nicholas remarked. “Thank you,” he added as Ellen placed two tankards more on the table, tussling her husband’s hair before disappearing again.
“And some have.” Quentin looked at the golden dragon on Glaukos’ surcoat. “We are in the presence of the king’s champion and his cupbearer.”
“You could have become kingthanes, if you wanted,” Geberic pointed out, grabbing his tankard.
“That’s work for blade boys.” Quentin’s condescending expression made his thoughts on the matter clear.
“We’re taking charge of the king’s archer regiments,” Nicholas explained. “They’re talking of sending us south soon.”
“While the pair of you can grow fat staying at the Citadel,” Quentin muttered. “Shouldn’t you be at the castle now, bearing the king’s cup or whatnot?”
“Obviously, I don’t do it all the time. It just means I’m his most trusted servant when he needs it,” Geberic retorted. “Besides, you can’t talk to me like that anymore. I’m a beorn now. It’s ‘milord’ and ‘his lordship’ for you lot.”
Glaukos turned his head slightly to give Geberic an appraising look. “If that is the case, I can recall a good number of times where you have failed to show such deference towards me.”
The greybeard frowned. “Are you nobleborn?”
“No, they let any beggar on the street train under Count Hubert to become a King’s Blade,” Glaukos growled.
“I thought as much. Heathmen are so primitive.” Geberic shook his head and took a deep draught from his ale, ignoring the stares from the three Hæthians at the table.
The brush in Eleanor’s hand carefully went through Arndis’ dark hair. “Are you sure he will agree to your suggestion?”
“My brother can be emotional, but once he calms down, he always sees reason,” Arndis claimed.
“You would know better than me.” Eleanor stopped the repetitive movement to look at Arndis’ face in the vanity mirror. “Are you not apprehensive at all at the prospect?”
“My dear, I already once travelled into the camp of the Isarn army, and that is when they were considered our enemies. I can handle one of them.”
Eleanor resumed her brush strokes. “He just seems so dour. If it were the elder brother, at least you would be jarlinna.”
Arndis shrugged. “I am the king’s sister. There is no position more powerful for me than that.”
“Except to be queen. Well, which you cannot be.” Eleanor chuckled anxiously. “I suppose even with his disposition, Sir Eumund seems a far better man than his father,” she quickly added.
“They are a strange sort, the House of Isarn. Each of them has his own foibles.”
“I would not say that of Sir Athelstan,” Arndis remarked, choosing earrings from her box of jewellery. “He is a fine man in every regard.”
“He does have certain qualities about him,” Eleanor agreed.
“To say the least. Wit and courteous manner, resolve and courage.”
Once again, Eleanor regarded her friend in the mirror. “You might say a greater man than any of his nephews.”
“I suppose.” Arndis raised two different earrings into the air. “Which one do you favour?”
Brand stood in the great chamber that served as the heart of the Order. With clerks and ledgers to one side, the main space was occupied by the large map painted on the floor of the Seven Realms. Wooden blocks illustrated the armies of the Order scattered across the kingdoms. Others lay stacked in Hæthiod, showing the strength of the outlanders.
The lord marshal appeared. “My king,” he spoke, approaching with a letter in hand.
Brand looked over his shoulder. “What is it?”
“I have word from Ealond.”
“That was swift.” The king glanced north-east on the map. “Cairn Donn is closer than Fontaine, yet I have heard nothing from Doran.”
“King Brión is wily,” the knight considered. “He may be delaying, waiting to see what happens.”
“Perhaps. If he refuses to support us, it will not be forgotten,” Brand declared. “What of Ealond?”
“Sir Martel writes that all his spare troops have been sent to Herbergja. It is expected that once the southerners take Portesur, they will move against Herbergja next. If they control the ports, we are cut off from Thusund.”
“He must have something left,” Brand exclaimed. “Ealond cannot be emptied of soldiers!”
“We do have a pledge of troops of six thousand troops, though not from the Order.”
“The duke of Belvoir,” William explained.
Brand frowned. “That is unexpected.”
“From what I can discern, reading the marshal’s letter…” The knight skimmed the parchment. “The duke is anxious that proper opposition is mounted against Alcázar, but he has no desire to fight under King Rainier’s banner. I imagine he hopes that by helping us repel the outlanders, we may in turn aid Ealond afterwards.”
“He would be right. Eventually.” Brand waved for a clerk to approach. “Have six thousand men from Belvoir added to the map.”
“Yes, my king.”
“There is another matter to discuss,” William considered.
“We have reinforcements ready to march to Hæthiod. They may link up with the army from Belvoir at Lake Myr and continue onwards. That will be enough to oppose the outlanders’ first army until their second arrives,” the lord marshal explained. “With speed and skill, we may hold them back from Ingmond long enough to begin harvesting.”
“Very well, dispatch the troops.”
“The question is who should lead them.”
“You are lord marshal. Who better?”
It took a moment for William to answer. “Apart from the king, the most able commander in the realms would be Sir Athelstan.”
Brand let out a deep sigh. “I made him a knight so that he could swing a sword. I would not entrust him with commanding an outpost in Vidrevi, let alone this army.” He looked down to see the earlier summoned clerk trying to place bricks in Hæthiod by his feet. “For gods’ sake, man, wait till I am gone!” The servant crawled backwards with bowed head.
“Yet if it comes to battle with the outlanders – or if skilful retreat is needed to avoid battle on poor terms – we could not ask for a better captain,” William cautiously argued.
“Last time Sir Athelstan was sent to Lake Myr, he betrayed the Order and led an attack on its camp.”
“Which will never be forgotten. But the king has forgiven him,” the knight pointed out, “and it is not my place to cast further aspersions on him.”
“Not yours, but I will do so if I see fit.”
“Of course. But given the difficulty of the task ahead…” William lowered his voice. “Thousands of lives, your soldiers, your subjects, will depend on who is in command, Brand. If there is the smallest chance that Sir Athelstan might prove the difference between victory or defeat, I must urge you to rely on him.”
Brand stared at his lord marshal as moments passed. Finally, he looked at the nearest kingthane. “Find Sir Athelstan and Sir Fionn. Summon them to my chambers.”
“At once, my king.”
The sound of chattering women echoed down the hallways in the royal wing. Due to her new status as the king’s sister, Arndis had a flock of noblewomen following her at all times, courting and competing for her favour. At mealtimes, she chose her companions freely, and if inclined, she allowed them to accompany her back to her quarters afterwards. Thus accompanied by this evening’s choice, Arndis moved through the Citadel towards her chambers.
Reaching their destination, they found a kingthane standing outside the open door. Frowning, Arndis approached with a question on her face.
“You have a visitor, milady,” the guard explained, standing aside to reveal the alderman patiently waiting inside.
“Thank you. You may leave,” Arndis told him. “The same goes for all of you,” she added, aimed at her companions.
It took a moment for her words to sink in through the idle conversation. The noblewomen fell quiet, exchanged looks, and left.
Once alone, Arndis stepped inside, closing the door. Smiling at Edwin, she inclined her head. “Master alderman, a pleasure as always.”
“And as always, milady, entirely mine.” Edwin gave as much a bow as his body allowed.
“You have come on business, I presume?”
“Indeed. Your help is needed, in fact.”
“May I?” The alderman pointed to a chair.
They both sat down, and Edwin cleared his throat. “We have prepared another train of trade for departure, but with rumours of war, there is some concern.”
“Concern regarding what?”
“In times of strife, merchants are the first to be attacked. We seek the king’s help and may in turn be of help to him.”
“And you wish for me to facilitate this exchange of aid,” Arndis considered.
“Astute as always. The jarl of Vale had several mercenary companies in his employ, and I understand that their contracts have been taken over by the Crown.”
“I am not familiar with the details, but I am sure your intelligence is correct. It always seems to be.”
The alderman smiled with an attempt at looking modest. “I expect the king will announce war taxes any day,” he continued. “Especially on merchants. My suggestion is simple.”
“You have my attention.”
“Allow us to pay for one of the mercenary companies. The Unbroken Shields will be suitable. In turn, we may use them to guard our caravans during perilous journeys. Most of them will remain in Middanhal, of course, available to defend the city or march with the king as he needs.”
“He may not be amenable to any situation that pulls even a single soldier away from his army.”
“Coin is needed to pay for those soldiers, and protecting our trade will allow us to pay our taxes,” the alderman argued. “We need only a few hundred swords at any given time. Their absence will hardly be felt. And should milady be able to convince the king of this, the merchants’ guild will be grateful.”
Arndis’ fingers played with her earring. “How much would this gratitude be worth?”
“Your share of our next venture would increase from one fourth to one third.”
“I shall speak to the king on your behalf.”
The alderman rose and made half a bow. “Truly a pleasure to be in business with you, milady.”
A thane of Vale knocked on the door to Valerie's room. "Enter," came her voice.
“Milady, the jarl of Isarn wishes to meet you."
"Oh. Let him in," she replied. As the thane left, she quickly looked in the mirror, fixing a stray lock of hair.
Moments later, the young jarl entered. He gave a bow, which she returned. "My lady."
"Lord Isenwald, a pleasure."
"Likewise." He wore a cautious smile that quickly faded. "I am sorry – it took me a while to visit."
"No harm done. These have been most difficult times. I am only glad that enmity between our houses is at an end."
"As am – I." He cleared his throat. "I wanted to know my situation before – I came to see you. Thankfully, the king has been merciful."
"He has." A smile dawned on her lips. "I saw you at the audience. For the first time since..."
"I – did not see you, alas, or – I would have spoken to you."
"It is no matter. I figured we would speak when the occasion arose."
"As – it has now." He cleared his throat again, looking nervous. "I came to say..."
"I know time has passed where we had little contact," he began to say. "But you should know," he continued, hesitating, "my feelings remain – they have not – I still feel as –"
"The same for me," she interjected.
He exhaled in relief. "Good. Thank you for – interrupting me, or that sentence would never have reached an end."
She laughed, born of the same emotion as his sigh, and he joined in.
Athelstan sat in the antechamber that led to the king’s quarters, watched by several kingthanes. He did not reciprocate, but simply stared into the air while tapping his fingers against the hilt of his sword. After a while, Fionn appeared. The highlander knight grunted and took a seat as well.
“You have also been summoned?” Athelstan asked.
“That gives me a better idea what this might be about.”
“We will know soon enough.” The highlander pointedly looked elsewhere.
A kingthane appeared from the inner rooms. “Sir Athelstan. The king awaits you.”
The knight rose and followed the guard until he stood before Brand in the chamber serving as study and for private audiences. Seated by his desk writing, the king looked up to see Athelstan bow.
“I will be brief,” Brand declared, placing his quill in the inkwell. “I have given you command of the Order’s army assembled to fight the outlanders. Sir Fionn will serve as your first lieutenant.”
“I am pleased to serve, my king.”
“The lord marshal will have your orders in detail. That will be all.” Athelstan bowed again. As he withdrew, Brand looked at the accompanying kingthane. “Bring Sir Fionn to me.”
One knight left and another appeared. Fionn wore a broad smile as he bowed his head. “At your command, my king.”
Brand finished the declaration he had been writing and looked up. “You will accompany Sir Athelstan as his first lieutenant to take charge of the Order’s army.”
Brand sprinkled powder from a small container onto the document, helping the ink to dry. “Besides your usual task, I have another for you.”
“At your service, my king.”
“You are to observe Sir Athelstan at all times. If he gives you the slightest reason to doubt his loyalty, seize him. If he resists, he should not be allowed to survive and escape.” Pouring the residual powder back into the container, Brand looked up. “Is that understood?”
“Good.” Brand folded the parchment and heated wax to seal it. “This document contains your instructions, should any doubt your word.” Pressing his signet ring into the red wax, he extended the sealed document to the knight, who stepped forward to receive it. “Last I had need of you, you proved worthy of my trust. I have no doubt you will do so again.”
Fionn grinned, waving the parchment in his hand. “Happy to serve.”
The day had almost ended when Godfrey slipped through the city gates. A crowd of people moved in both directions, as rumours of war increased traffic; some sought refuge in the city while others deemed it best to flee, all according to their own wisdom.
Of those who left, nearly all followed the Kingsroad south-west for two reasons. Firstly, it followed the Mihtea, allowing freshwater during the journey. Secondly, Ealond lay in that direction, promising safe harbour should the outlanders reach Adalrik.
As the only person, Godfrey moved south-east. Once alone, he began to whistle as he walked. Eventually, a sparrow approached; as he stretched out his hand, it landed in his grasp. He whispered words to it and released the bird, watching it fly north; as for himself, he continued his march towards Hæthiod.