Coming to Terms
It was a pleasant summer's day. Gentle winds blew from the sea, bringing the taste of salt in the air. While the constant barrage from the stone throwers served as a permanent reminder of the siege elsewhere, matters were quiet on the harbour of Herbergja. In normal times, it would be bustling with activity and ships filling the port. Now, only soldiers moved around, and the piers lay nearly empty after most vessels had been sacrificed to defend the harbour.
A cry of alarm broke the quiet. Sails in the distance. As they equipped themselves for battle, soldiers streamed from the castle to fill the harbour. Spear and stone throwers were prepared and lamp oil placed in the remaining vessels, ready to be set aflame. Row after row of black-clad soldiers stood on the walls, grasping weapons. As ship after ship appeared on the horizon, nobody spoke except muttered prayers.
Suddenly, the quiet pleas became replaced by rising murmur. The approaching ships were not galleys, but long and slender according to northern custom. Finally, the wind caught the banner on the leading ship, unfurling it to reveal a golden dragon.
A clamour erupted in excitement. Soldiers broke down, falling to the ground in tears. Others ran through the streets, shouting the news. The fleet of Thusund had come, bearing the army of the high king to save the city.
Ship after ship entered the harbour. Crowds had gathered to see the sight for themselves. As the first vessel moored, a score of kingthanes disembarked to create a barrier. All eyes turned to the tall, gaunt figure that appeared next. He wore no crown, nor armour or weapons. His tunic was entirely black; his cloak had same colour and insignia as worn by his thane. Walking from ship to pier, he looked grim in his countenance, paying no heed to the throng of people calling to him.
"My king," spoke Sir Asger outside the ring of kingthanes.
"Let him approach," Brand commanded, and the protectors stood aside to let the knight pass. He stepped forward only to kneel. "You may rise. Time is more important than gestures."
The marshal did so. "A strange twist of fate to meet again under these circumstances," he declared, "but most joyous."
"Yes. Is my sister and her companions at the castle?"
"They are, my king. I have prepared horses and an escort." Asger pointed towards a score of horses and twice the number of Order soldiers, keeping the crowd at bay.
"Good." Brand and a number of thanes walked over to the horses, followed by the marshal. Behind them, the ships continued to enter the harbour, disgorging regiment after regiment of Order soldiers.
Soon after arrival, the king and his followers rode into the castle. Quickly dismounting, they were led by the marshal inside to the entrance hall, where three women stood waiting. With swift steps, Arndis closed the distance to embrace her brother.
"We are so happy to see you," she exclaimed as she pulled back. "I never doubted you would reach us in time."
"I did," Brand admitted. "Gwen. Lady Eleanor."
He glanced around. "Where is Jana?"
The women exchanged looks. "She is not here," his sister said. "She left."
"Alone? Where to? Middanhal?"
Arndis took a deep breath. "She went to the siege camp."
Confusion ran across Brand's face before anger replaced it. "What? Why?"
"Brother, how do you think we bought a month's truce?"
He stared with eyes that grew narrow. "You bartered her away like a slave?"
"It was her decision," Arndis argued. "And she saved us all. The city was hanging by a thread!"
"Convenient," he sneered.
"We needed time for reinforcements, or they would have overwhelmed us!" she continued.
"It is true," the marshal admitted. "The lady might very well have saved the city."
"You sold her to save your skin," Brand spoke through gritted teeth, aimed at his sister.
"Do not levy such accusations at me! I stayed despite the danger, seeking to negotiate another truce, buy more time, save your subjects!" Arndis retorted.
"She left this letter for you," Gwen interjected, pulling out an envelope to extend it towards Brand, who quickly grabbed it.
"You had this the whole time and never mentioned it?" Arndis asked pointedly.
Gwen shrugged. "She made me swear I'd place it in his hands."
Arndis began to speak again, but Brand raised one hand to silence his sister while he still stared at the letter in his hand. "Sir Asger, send a signal from the highest point in the city. Duke Belvoir will be waiting to hear of our arrival."
"Yes, my king."
"Show me to my chamber."
The marshal gestured for a servant to approach, who gave a nervous bow and led the king away. Ascending stairs, they soon reached a chamber of modest luxury; the castle was meant for soldiers, not nobility. Dismissing the servant and his thanes, Brand opened the envelope to unfold the letter within.
Do not be angry with me. I did what all daughters of kings must do, buying peace by leaving their home. At least I was allowed to do this for your sake, of my own volition, rather than as my father's pawn. The thought of this provides me solace even as I dread my departure from these shores. Despite all the dangers we faced in these lands, I always drew strength from your presence, and that gave me more courage than I ever thought I might possess. I shall need that courage now, and I pray the thought of you will provide it. Last we separated, it took many years before we met again. Maybe it will be so again, but I am sure we shall find each other, in this life or the next.
Brand sat down on the nearest surface, which turned out to be a table. With deep breaths, he began reading the letter once more, letting his eyes run over the words again and again.
The next morning, Prince Saif woke as his aide came bursting into the tent. "Your Highness!"
"What?" he mumbled.
"The northerners are marching out of the city. They are preparing for battle."
Jumping out of bed, the prince tied his sword belt around him and grabbed a cloak. "The northern riverbank?"
"No, sidi, follow!" Adherbal led his master out of the tent. "They come from the southern gate. They are taking up formation outside the city, though they have yet to attack," he explained as they hastened through the camp.
"Madness," Saif replied. "Their garrison is not one tenth of our forces. We will crush them."
"There is more," his aide told him as they reached the defences of the camp. "We know where their ships went. To Vidrevi and back."
"What does that mean?" asked the prince as they ran up the earthworks to stand on the rampart.
Before their eyes, a host of black-clad soldiers spread out with hundreds of knights on the flanks. Numerous banners of the Star flew in the air, and in front could be seen yet another standard. Adherbal gestured towards it as it showed a golden dragon. "Adalrik has come."
The southerners filled their ramparts, ready to defend. Still, the Mearcians showed no signs of attacking. From the Order army, three horses rode forward. One rider held the banner of the high king; another had a flag with the head of a horse.
From the ramparts, the prince emerged along with his aide and three mamluks, all on horseback. Both groups rode forward until they came close enough to speak.
"This is His Royal Highness, Prince Saif of the House al-Saqr, firstborn son to the Kabir of Alcázar, whose rule enlightens the world," Adherbal declared loudly that his voice would traverse the gap between them.
"This is King Adalbrand. Dragon of Adalrik," Geberic replied, sounding less sure of himself. "He's of the House of Adal, and, high king of Adalmearc." He cleared his throat. "He's come to negotiate terms with you."
"Let us hear them," Saif responded.
Brand dismounted and stepped forward. Glaukos quickly followed suit, making a small gesture for Geberic to remain where he was. "Let us approach each other," Brand suggested, "rather than shout."
After a moment's hesitation, the prince mirrored the king, leaving his horse behind; his aide did the same. "What is your proposal?" Saif asked.
"I offer peace. You shall immediately withdraw all your forces from Mearcian soil. In return, I will seek no recompense. I will give certain trade concessions, and the peace between Adalmearc and Alcázar shall be sealed through a royal marriage," Brand explained.
"Those are even terms," the prince replied, "yet your fortresses and cities are in my hands. My army on this battlefield outnumbers yours. You present yourself as the magnanimous victor, but you have yet to achieve any victory."
"Do you know my reputation, Prince Saif? The battles I have won?"
"I have heard exaggerated rumours. Yet I see you do not come clad for war. You seem ill prepared." His eyes ran over Brand's appearance. The king did not wear armour or weapons, nor a helmet. He had a cotton tunic suitable for a leisurely day, but hardly offering protection in battle.
"Let me explain who I am that you might judge me better," Brand offered, switching to fluent Suthspeech. He rolled up one sleeve and ran a finger across a scar on his arm. "I received this last year in your father's dungeon."
Doubt filled Saif's face. "What is this?"
Repeating his gesture with the other sleeve, Brand pointed out another scar. "And this." He ran his hand across his chest, tracing lines underneath the fabric. "And many more. Do you not recognise me, Prince Saif? Your father ordered your brother to interrogate me."
"Yet true. Last year, I awaited execution upon the maswar in Alcázar. Now, I stand before you with the strongest armies in the world at my command. The gods favour me, Prince Saif. That is who I am." Brand pulled his sleeves down. "I have come prepared, Prince Saif. As we speak, another army marches to threaten your camp from the east. Meanwhile, my island fleet is ready to disembark soldiers south of your defences. You will be overrun from all sides."
"Kind of you to reveal your strategy beforehand," Saif replied.
"I say this so you will understand. If you seek battle, I will destroy you. Your previous victories are of no consequence. Your conquest ends today, either with peace or defeat."
"Forgive me if I do not take your word for it," the prince retorted. "I have not come this far only to turn back at mere threats."
"Because if you do so, your father will cast you aside," Brand remarked, still speaking the southern tongue. "Yes, I know your position. I understand why you feel that you must refuse."
"Then you also understand that unless you offer me better terms, there will be no peace."
"I do. My offer is this. Take your army, sail home, and replace your father."
Saif widened his eyes. "Are you mad?"
"Your men know the situation as well as you do. They will owe their lives to you. Once you take your father's place, his treasury will pay the gold they in turn are owed," Brand pointed out. "Both the Council of Ten and the Hundred Houses will support you when you return with trade concessions."
"You speak of betraying my father!"
"Thereby saving your city. At best, this war incurs ruinous debts that Alcázar cannot pay given your impending defeat and lack of trade as a result. At worst, I march my armies south," Brand threatened. "The choice is between death or kingship. I cannot make it simpler for you."
Adherbal leaned forward to whisper into his master's ear. Saif parted his lips, hesitating before he spoke. "You will support me as the new Kabir?"
Brand gave a measured nod. "I will. In addition, the union between our houses will give you prestige and pre-eminence throughout the Inner Sea."
Saif exhaled. "I accept."
"I have one condition that must be met," Brand added.
"The union must be with Lady Jana, who will be released to me at once."
"I cannot," the prince replied, "but I have plenty of other sisters."
The king narrowed his eyes. "It will be her, or there shall be no peace."
"But it is not possible, Your Majesty," Saif began to argue.
"Take heed." Switching to Nordspeech, Brand's voice became threatening. "If you keep her from me, I will not only annihilate this army. I will destroy Alcázar, tearing stone from stone until not a trace remains. Do you understand?"
"But she is gone," Saif hurried to explain. "I sent her with the ships to Maleth. She will be waiting for a ship to bring her to Alcázar. She may already have arrived there."
Brand stared at the prince. "How will your father treat her?"
"She has brought shame upon him," Saif admitted. "If he is inclined to mercy, he may marry her to a lowly courtier and dispatch them to some remote place, hiding the shame. If not... Your Majesty, I cannot promise her to you. But that should not stand in the way of making peace."
For a moment, Brand looked towards the west. Beyond the coast, the sea met the horizon. As all watched, waiting, he finally turned towards Saif again. "I will require your signet ring. And your aide." He looked at Adherbal, who responded with a bewildered expression. "In exchange for peace on the stated terms. Do we have an agreement?" Brand extended his hand.
The prince cast a look over his shoulder at his aide before he stepped forward, grasping the king's arm. "We are agreed."
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, currently focused on writing Firebrand. See my other fictions on this profile or my website for my previously completed projects.